Jacques Ferron 1921–1985
French-Canadian novelist, short story writer, novella writer, playwright, and essayist.
The following entry presents an overview of Ferron's career.
Known for his medical accomplishments and political activities as well as his literary works, Ferron was a vocal supporter of Quebec separatism and the author of novels and short stories that combine the fantastic with the mundane in celebration of Quebec's cultural heritage. He received a Governor General's Award in 1963 for his short story collection Contes du pays incertain (1962) and was selected by the Front de Libération du Québec (FLQ) to act as mediator during the 1970 October Crisis, during which the FLQ kidnapped a British official and the Canadian minister of labor. Remarking on the author's career, Paul Matthew St. Pierre has written that "Ferron's contributions to Quebecois literature [not only] point to his admirable involvements in medicine and politics but they also manage to reflect the cultural development of Quebec over the past forty years."
Ferron was born on January 20, 1921, in Louisville, Quebec, and received his early education at Trois-Rivières before attending the Collège Jean-de-Brébeuf in Montreal. His mother died from tuberculosis when Ferron was ten, and critics have traced his literary fascination with death to this event. Two of Ferron's sisters also became artists: Madeleine, a novelist, and Marcelle, an Automatiste painter. During his time at Collège Jean-de-Brébeuf, Ferron developed an interest in Quebec's cultural heritage and was also introduced to socialism. In 1943, while studying medicine at Université Laval in Quebec City, he married a communist, Madeleine Therrien, whom he later divorced. After graduating in 1945, Ferron entered the Canadian army, serving as a doctor in camps in Quebec and New Brunswick. In 1946 he established a private practice in Rivière Madeleine on the Gaspé Peninsula; two years later he set up practice in the working-class Montreal suburb of Ville Jacques-Cartier, which later became known as Longueuil. Ferron published his first play L'ogre in 1949 and followed it with several more dramas and a collection of poetry before achieving widespread success with Contes du pays incertain. Beginning in 1951 and continuing for the next thirty years, Ferron became a regular contributor of literary, medical, philosophical, and political essays to the journal L'information medicale et paramedicale. In 1952 he married Madelaine Lavallée. Aside from his many essays published in various periodicals and newspapers, his political activities included founding the Rhinoceros Party—a satirical political organization—in 1963; acting as mediator between the FLQ and the Canadian government following the kidnapping of Pierre Laporte during the 1970 October Crisis; and co-founding in 1980 the Regroupement des Ecrivains pour le OUI—an organization of writers who favored Quebec separatism. Despite Ferron's success with Contes du pays incertain and the numerous novels, novellas, and short story collections which followed, his reputation outside Quebec has developed slowly. He died of a heart attack on April 22, 1985, leaving behind a collection of short stories and an autobiographical essay which were published together as La conference inachevée in 1988.
Ferron's interest in medicine and politics pervades much of his literary work, and the image of Quebec as an exiled country—suggested in the title of his first short story collection Contes du pays incertain ("Tales of the Uncertain Country")—is employed throughout his writing. The major themes in Ferron's stories and novels include death, sanity versus madness, and the complex relationship between Quebec and English Canada. A pervasive theme throughout his fiction, death is the principal subject for two of his novels—Cotnoir (1962, Dr. Cotnoir) and La charette (1968, The Cart)—and is often linked with salvation and redemption. In The Cart, which centers on a doctor who dies and then experiences a journey through the underworld, Ferron satirizes the pomp and solemnity associated with death and examines the subject from a first-person perspective that changes to third person after the character's demise. The dual themes of madness and sanity are most evident in the novel Les roses sauvages (1971; Wild Roses). The novel centers on the Baron, a highly-successful businessman whose wife committed suicide after going insane, and Rose-Aimée, the Baron's daughter who resists her father's attempts to circumscribe her life. Characterized as a sell-out, the Baron is isolated from his culture and, like his wife, eventually goes insane and commits suicide. Numerous critics have linked the theme of insanity in Wild Roses to Quebec's cultural destiny, arguing that collective alienation is a form of insanity and is comparable to a patient locked in an isolation ward who becomes servile and dependent. In "L'exécution de Maski" ("The Execution of Maski"), Ferron examines another psychological theme, the divided self. Here, Notary, the writer within Dr. Maski, attempts to kill the doctor but finds that the doctor's destruction heralds his own. The relationship between Anglophones and Francophones in Ferron's oeuvre is, according to critics, complex. In his tales Ferron often pokes fun at the English, portraying them as foreign and quaint. However, his longer works, though concerned with Quebec's self-affirmation, argue the necessity of considering the English "other" in any definition of Quebec. In Les grands soleils (1968, The Flowering Suns), for instance, it is an English woman who is cast as a potential Joan of Arc for Quebec. In La nuit (1965, Quince Jam), the English character Frank Archibald Campbell, also known as Frank Anacharsis Scott, acts as an alter ego to a Quebecois narrator, while in a later novel, Le ciel de Québec (1969, The Penniless Redeemer), Frank achieves redemption on becoming "Québeckized." Remarking on the role of Ann Higgit, an English-speaking character from Wild Roses, Betty Bednarski states that Quebec's reality is "sympathetically translated by an English outside mind, and it is this characteristic projection of one's own reality into the mind of another that constitutes the most interesting aspect of Ferron's attitude to the English. To truly exist, and ultimately, to be truly saved, Québec, it would seem, has to be perceived and have substance, individually and collectively, in the English mind."
Ferron's dramas, written early in his career, are commonly considered unremarkable, and his works did not begin to receive serious critical attention until Contes du pays incertain won the Governor General's Award. Commentators have noted his use of fantasy, his frequent attempts to demythologize Quebec's historical figures by placing them in fictional situations, and his persistent concern with the fate of Canada's French-speaking population. With the publication of several translations, Ferron's writing has gained recognition beyond French-speaking Canada. However, his work is still met with ambivalence by many English-speaking Canadians.
L'ogre (drama) [first publication] 1949
La barbe de Francois Hertel; Le licou (dramas) [first publication] 1951
Tante Elise; ou, le prix de l'amour (drama) [first publication] 1956
Le cheval de Don Juan (drama) [first publication] 1957; also published as Le Don Juan chrétien in Théâtre [revised edition], 1968
Le Dodu; ou, le prix de bonheur (drama) 1958
Le licou (drama) 1958
Les grands soleils [The Flowering Suns] (drama) 1968
Corolles (poetry) 1961
Contes du pays incertain (short stories) 1962
Cotnoir [Dr. Cotnoir] (novel) 1962
Cazou; ou, le prix de la virginite (drama) [first publication] 1963
La tête du roi (drama) [first publication] 1963
Contes anglais et autres (short stories) 1964
La Nuit (novella) 1965; also published as Les confitures de coings [Quince Jam] [revised edition], 1972
Papa Boss (novella) 1966; revised edition, 1972
La Charrette [The Cart] (novel) 1968
Contes—edition intégrale: Contes anglais, contes du pays incertain, contes inédits (short stories) 1968
Théâtre. 2 vols. (dramas) 1968–75
Le ciel de Québec [The Penniless Redeemer] (novel) 1969
Historiettes (essays) 1969
L'Amélanchier [The Juneberry Tree] (novel) 1970
Le salut de l'Irlande (novel) 1970
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SOURCE: A review of Tales from the Uncertain Country, in The Canadian Forum, Vol. LII, No. 617, June, 1972, pp. 41-2.
[In the following review, Socken remarks on the style and themes of the stories collected in Tales from the Uncertain Country.]
Jacques Ferron is one of Quebec's most highly acclaimed writers, and a translation of some of his short stories by Betty Bednarski makes his writing accessible to an English-speaking audience for the first time.
In Tales from the Uncertain Country, a collection of eighteen short stories, the reader can acquire a representative glimpse of Ferron's very unusual world. Ferron is concerned with people's origins, and their quest to determine who they are and where they belong. His is a study of people's roots, and the relationships people establish with those around them. Ferron's only enemy is complacency and unfounded pride, as we see them ridiculed in 'Tiresome Company', a story in which a young doctor's pride is quickly deflated in very picturesque terms.
Ferron's creative approach, the reader should be forewarned, is not commonplace. He is the only writer writing today, anywhere, who uses the fable, the legend, what the French call the 'conte', as his literary vehicle. He does not simply make allusions to Greek myth or tales like 'Little Red Riding Hood', he actually uses the framework of the legend itself,...
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SOURCE: "Fine-Rooted Blossomer," in Essays on Canadian Writing, No. 4, Spring, 1976, pp. 76-7.
[In the following excerpt, Early criticizes Ferron's The Juneberry Tree for containing too many details, but states that "it has beauties enough."]
"I am called Tinamer de Portanqueu. I am not the daughter of nomads or gypsies." So begins Jacques Ferron's brief novel of childhood and childhood's end. First published in French in 1970, it now appears in the "French Writers of Canada" series undertaken by Harvest House to make more Quebec fiction available in English translation. The Juneberry Tree is not self-consciously a story of Quebec: there are no priests, revolutionaries, swarming mulots or families of emaciated urchins, though there is a burning cathedral, attesting perhaps to the vitality of cultural archetypes. The novel is a curious hybrid of fable, dream and monograph.
While Tinamer is no Ishmael, she does survive terrors and voids which threaten to whelm her under. From the viewpoint of her twentieth year she evokes and analyzes her experience as a six-year-old when the wood behind her home was an enchanted world presided over by a benign thaumaturge, her father, Leon de Portanqueu. Their relationship is the heart of the tale. Their wonderland, "the good side of things" according to the myth they cherish, is set over against "the bad side of things," the mundane world...
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SOURCE: "Shared Concerns," in The Canadian Forum, Vol. LVI, No. 665, October, 1976, pp. 33-4.
[In the following excerpt, Socken examines the major themes in Wild Roses.]
In Wild Roses, Jacques Ferron explores the topography of the land inhabited by the sane and the mad and raises questions about some of our society's most fundamental assumptions about those two states. The result is a novel which implies that no map can be drawn to distinguish the two areas, no clearly-defined borders can be established, for they are part of the same country, the uncertain country of the human mind.
The story centres on the Baron, a man whose wife bears him a daughter, goes mad shortly thereafter and commits suicide. Totally devoted to the daughter, Rose-Aimée, the Baron decides to leave her with a good Acadian family and to visit her every spare moment. He is described as a "tall, handsome, impeccably dressed young man, who was courteous and considerate in spite of his exuberance…." This, and similar descriptions of him, repeatedly occur and serve as a refrain which explains everyone's admiration for him. He appears to be the best society can produce, the very epitome of success. The tone of the descriptions is mocking, however, and alludes to the Baron's complacency and superficiality. As the Baron becomes more and more devoted to rising in the company hierarchy and his daughter grows...
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SOURCE: "Ferron's Fairy Tale about a Corporate Madman," in Saturday Night, Vol. 91, No. 8, November, 1976, pp. 58-61.
[In the following excerpt, Sandler remarks on the underlying political message in Wild Roses.]
No one takes much notice of a Quiet Revolution, but who can ignore an "apprehended insurrection"? We know instinctively that people who are capable of writing their history with blood are bound to write interesting books, so it's no accident that translations of Québec literature have proliferated since October, 1970. And it's not surprising that English Canadians are interested in Jacques Ferron, the man who interceded between Pierre Trudeau and Paul Rose of the FLQ.
Jacques Ferron, physician and man of letters, has been quietly influencing Québec politics and literature for twenty years. He was known as a playwright when his first book of fiction, Contes du pays incertain, established his reputation as a brilliant, ironic story-teller. It wasn't until 1972 that a selection of his fables, Tales from the Uncertain Country, appeared in English, but there are now six of his novels in translation: Dr. Cotnoir, The Saint Elias, The Juneberry Tree, Papa Boss, Quince Jam, and Wild Roses, which has been elegantly translated by Betty Bednarski.
Writing, for Ferron, is not unlike practising medicine—it's a way of humanizing the world....
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SOURCE: An afterword to Wild Roses: A Story Followed by a Love Letter, McClelland & Stewart Limited, 1976, pp. 120-23.
[Bednarski is an educator and critic who has translated several of Ferron's works into English, including Wild Roses. In the following essay, she remarks on the theme of insanity in Wild Roses and examines the novel's distinctive qualities.]
By now Jacques Ferron needs little introduction to English Canadian readers. Acclaimed for over a decade in Quebec, he is rapidly gaining the recognition he deserves in the rest of the country. But as a writer he is many-sided, elusive, and Wild Roses may well come as a surprise to those who feel they already know his work. Disconcerting in its simplicity, almost Victorian in tone, it lacks the fantasy, the baroque complexity of his other books. Readers accustomed to Ferron's mordant wit and black humour will find this novel unexpectedly sober. There are few winks here, few barbs, and he permits himself only the gentlest of irony. While there is much that is familiar—the theme of the salvation of one human being through the death of another, the preoccupation with mental illness and institution life, the concern for the fate of Canada's French speaking minorities—the perspective is new. And this perspective, unique so far in Ferron's work, is of particular significance in the context of an English translation....
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SOURCE: "Jacques Ferron: The Marvellous Folly of Writing," in Voices of Deliverance: Interviews with Quebec & Acadian Writers, translated by Larry Shouldice, Anansi, 1986, pp. 83-103.
[In the following essay, based on correspondence and an interview, Ferron discusses his British literary influences, symbolism, character, and the place of Quebec history and legend in his works.]
Interviewing Jacques Ferron seemed at first to be something of a Mission Impossible. I had been told several times that Ferron almost never granted interviews and that, although he was not a complete recluse like Réjean Ducharme, the good doctor was not very fond of talking about his writing. However, I was not about to let myself become discouraged. I had just spent five years working on a doctoral dissertation dealing with Ferron, and my head was teeming with his work: 16 plays, 12 novels, two collections of short stories, two books of fictionalized biography, two volumes of polemical writings and a book of historical tales. So I sat down with a blank piece of paper and wrote as follows:
Cher Monsieur Ferron,
I am not Scott Ewen in your play La tête du roi, a paternalistic Englishman if ever there was one; nor am I that enemy of the Québécois, Frank Archibald Campbell, whom you poison in La nuit. And I'm certainly not one of those Englishmen from...
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SOURCE: "Translator's Afterword," in The Penniless Redeemer, translated by Ray Ellenwood, Exile Editions, 1984, pp. 339-42.
[In the following essay, Ellenwood discusses Ferron's mixture of the mundane and the fantastic in The Penniless Redeemer.]
'In the beginning is Le Ciel de Québec, our great and only novel of initiation,' writes Philippe Haeck [in Voix & Images, Vol. VIII, No. 3 (1983)]. And he calls the book 'our Bible.' Why? Maybe because it is so inclusive, the most complete account of his uncertain country by a man who seems to know more about it than anyone. It functions almost as a Book of Numbers, but also as gossip, stories told over the kitchen table, carefully detailed little jokes about priests, politicians, public figures of all kinds. Myth has that side to it as well, telling who did what to whom, taking plenty of time to focus on homely details, even though the characters (with names like Apollo, Orpheus, Calliope) may be larger than life.
I don't know how anyone could not enjoy this book on the level of pure irreverent tale-telling, for the fun it has at the expense of half-crazed clerics and other notables. To do so is not to forget the important observations it makes about social and cultural relations, language, compassion and power. Gradually, the broad themes impose their order on apparent chaos.
The story begins in medias...
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SOURCE: "Rereading Jacques Ferron," in The Antigonish Review, No. 61, Spring, 1985, pp. 43-9.
[In the following essay, Bednarski comments on the relationship between life and literature in Ferron's works.]
When Jacques Ferron died this spring, I began immediately rereading books of his, some of which had remained unopened on my shelf for several years. It must be a natural reaction to seek to re-establish contact in this way and to re-affirm a bond with a writer who has died. Especially if we have known and loved the man. For me Jacques Ferron the writer had always been inseparable from the man. And I no doubt brought to this most recent reading the particular intensity of my loss and, in spite of long held critical convictions and academic habits of mind, the desire, unconscious, perhaps, but no less intense, to rediscover in the texts a life which was no more, and which, in some compelling way, had touched and engaged my own. I also brought a recent and quite conscious preoccupation with the nature of the reading/writing process and curiosity about the subtle interplay between literature and life.
And so I read, following no particular order, heeding I know not what unconscious promptings, letting each book itself call forth the next. The Jacques Ferron I rediscovered was himself a reader, a voracious reader of other writers, great and small—writers as different as Lewis Carroll and...
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SOURCE: "Death and Dr. Ferron," in Brick: A Journal of Reviews, No. 24, Spring, 1985, pp. 6-9.
[In the essay below, Ellenwood discusses Ferron's treatment of death in his stories and novels.]
He was obsessed with it; defied it and courted it virtually all his life. His mother died young of tuberculosis, his father committed suicide a few years later, he was tubercular himself and was sent to a sanitarium just after the war. Deciding he wasn't ready for a slow, passive demise, he went over the wall and continued working twenty hours a day, smoking like a chimney, conducting pharmacological experiments on himself, even trying, unsuccessfully, Mithridates' silken escape ladder until death finally caught him napping on the morning of April 22, 1985. Neveurmagne, he'll have the last word. No writer I'm aware of has ever said so much, so wisely, humorously, mordantly, compassionately about death.
In the tales, most of which were written in the fifties and early sixties, death is handled ironically and coolly, with the narrator as a more-or-less detached spectator. The event takes place in a clear social context. Its banality and ego-centricity often contrast with the conventional actions and basic impatience of the survivors. Sometimes the moment of death gives us an image of an entire life, as in "How the Old Man Died," where we witness a quiet struggle between a moribund but stubborn...
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SOURCE: An introduction to Selected Tales of Jacques Ferron, translated by Betty Bednarski, Anansi, 1985, pp. 11-6.
[In the following essay, Bednarski remarks on the central place of the tale in Ferron's work.]
Jacques Ferron, winner of the Governor-General's Prize for literature, the Prix France-Québec, the Prix Duvernay and the Prix David, has long been recognized as one of Quebec's foremost writers. Novelist, essayist, playwright, polemicist and, above all, master storyteller, he has begun in recent years to achieve the recognition he deserves outside Quebec, in France and in the rest of Canada.
In spite of his literary fame, many people in Quebec still know Ferron only as a doctor. He completed his medical training in 1945 at Laval University and shortly afterwards went to work as a country doctor in a remote fishing village in the Gaspé. Since 1948 he has lived and practised in Longueuil (formerly Ville Jacques-Cartier), which lies opposite Montreal on the south shore of the St. Lawrence River. In White Niggers of America Pierre Vallières has paid tribute to Ferron's contribution to the lives of his working class patients there, and the doctor has shown a similar commitment to the mentally ill, working first with disturbed children at Montreal's Mont Providence and later with women patients at Saint-Jean-de-Dieu Psychiatric Hospital. To many others,...
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SOURCE: "Jacques Ferron," in Profiles in Canadian Literature, Volume 5, edited by Jeffrey M. Heath, Dundurn, 1986, pp. 121-28.
[In the essay below, Bednarski surveys Ferron's works, focusing on such themes as Quebec-English relations, death, insanity, and alienation.]
There is one title which more than any other sums up the literary universe of Jacques Ferron. It is Contes du pays incertain (Tales from the Uncertain Country), that of the Québec doctor's first book of short stories, which won the Governor General's Prize for 1962 and gained him his first true recognition as a writer. [In an endnote, the critic explains that "[Tales from the Uncertain Country] was the English title of a collection published in 1972 by Anansi, but of the eighteen stories translated, only ten were from Contes du pays incertain. The French collection is translated for the first time in its entirely in Selected Tales of Jacques Ferron."] This title evokes, first of all, the social, political and ideological uncertainty of a Québec caught in the painful transition from rural to urban life and grappling with the ambiguities inherent in its status within the Canadian confederation. It also suggests the equivocal atmosphere of a literary landscape where nothing is clearcut, where the seemingly contradictory elements of pathos and humour, polemics, and pure fun, blunt down-to-earthness and unrestrained...
(The entire section is 4588 words.)
SOURCE: "Unfinished Business," in Books in Canada, Vol. 17, No. 1, January-February, 1988, pp. 21-2.
[In the review below, Bednarski remarks on the sense of loss and despair in La conférence inachevée.]
At the time of Jacques Ferron's death in 1985 no major new book by him had been published in Quebec for many years. The silence was troubling and eloquent in the case of a writer whose voice had been resonant throughout the 1960s and '70s. The old books—the fantastical novels, the essays, and the contes, by now living classics—were consistently reprinted, but there was nothing from the present, nothing to indicate that the great work could be continued or renewed.
Most readers knew that Ferron was going through a period of painful personal crisis and that he had effectively withdrawn from public life. But he had not given up writing, and before he died he had prepared a collection of texts that now have been published under the title La Conférence inachevée. They are, for the most part, short pieces. Fifteen are stories—contes or historiettes—originally published in periodicals, and there is a long autobiographical essay on the subject of madness, segments of which had been printed in the late '70s and early '80s in L'Information médicale et paramédicale, where over the years some of Ferron's finest writing had first appeared. Together...
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Allen, Antonia. "A Master Storyteller Emerges from Quebec." Saturday Night 87, No. 8 (August 1972): 37.
Laudatory review of Tales from the Uncertain Country.
―――――――. "Living in the Midst of Death." Saturday Night 89, No. 2 (February 1974): 32.
Argues that in Dr. Cotnoir Ferron "furnishes us with the essence of Quebec. It is an experience at once scintillating and depressing."
Bednarski, Betty. "Jacques Ferron (1921–1985)." Canadian Literature, No. 107 (Winter 1985): 193-95.
Tribute to Ferron in which Bednarski remarks on Ferron's reputation and the links between his works and politics.
Brick, No. 16 (Fall 1982): 4-47.
Special issue on Ferron containing a brief introductory note, translations of several stories, and a bibliography of other works available in translation.
Ellenwood, Ray. "Morley Callaghan, Jacques Ferron, and the Dialectic of Good and Evil." In The Callaghan Symposium, edited by David Staines, pp. 37-46. Ottawa, Canada: University of Ottawa Press, 1981.
Compares Callaghan and Ferron, focusing on Ferron's The...
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