Introduction

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Roy, Gabrielle 1909–

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A French-Canadian novelist, Roy was twice the winner of the Canadian Governor General's Award. Her fiction is nationalistic in character, treating themes such as the adverse effect of progress on Canada and its people. Although Roy writes in French, most of her novels have been translated into English. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 53-56.)

Paula Gilbert Lewis

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What Gabrielle Roy has … accomplished in La Route d'Altamont is to place together in a close rapport a young and an old person, both of whom express a deep need to communicate and to understand one another. In the four "short stories" that compose what the author has classified as a novel, the reader sees a narrator, Christine, first as an eight-year-old child in her relationships with her eighty-year-old grandmother and then with the eighty-four-year-old Monsieur Sanit-Hilaire, and, in the final story, as a mature woman, desirous of communicating with her seventy-year-old mother. (pp. 457-58)

It is … themes of memory and death which are so vivid to the characters of La Route d'Altamont and which Gabrielle Roy succeeds in rendering so vivid to her own readers.

There are several distinct levels of memory to be found throughout La Route d'Altamont. All of them, however, are closely interwoven into the circle of time where particular moments or experiences appear to be frozen into one instant equaling all time or where history is seen in a repetitive fashion. Such timelessness is accomplished either through one's own remembrances of oneself and of another or through heredity, the transmitting of certain traits from the old to the young. (p. 458)

In describing the varied attributes of memories, it is made clear that they are generally deep and intimate secrets in our minds and are activated in an instinctive and involuntary manner. In "La Route d'Altamont," for example, Christine, as an adult, accidentally discovers a road which passes through the sole mountain chain in Manitoba. The sight of these mountains causes Eveline, accompanying her daughter, to recall the mountains of the Province of Québec that she had so dearly loved during her childhood. What this "road through the town of Altamont" actually represents is the route to the past, accidentally or involuntarily discovered by youth on behalf of the old. When Christine tries consciously to find this road again, she has difficulty. Rediscovery is not within her will. (pp. 458-59)

Precisely because of their involuntary nature, memories need a key in order to be stimulated. Symbolically in "La Route d'Altamont," this key will be the town itself…. But even this key, as has been seen, must be involuntarily rediscovered. (p. 459)

It is inevitable that, with … [an] emphasis on the themes of youth, old age, and memory, death also be presented strongly in La Route d'Altamont. In addition to the actual presence of death in the stories, that of the grandmother and those impending of M. Saint-Hilaire and of Eveline, Gabrielle Roy uses several symbols in order to describe or to underline the overriding power of death. After "Ma Grand-mère toute-puissante" and "Le Vieillard et l'enfant," both seen under the influence of death because of the age of the characters, "Le Déménagement" first seems to be out of place. It is the story of the young Christine's experiences when she accompanies a friend and her father on one of their daily trips as household movers. As François Ricard points out, however, this physical move is actually Christine's first contact with separation, with the leaving behind of stability and security. In this sense, what occurs in "Le Déménagement" is a metaphorical experience of what eventually will be the entrance into the realm of death.

The wagon upon which Christine sits with all of the old furniture represents, therefore, the chariot of death. It symbolizes death, in addition, in that it is a reminder of the dead past before the use of automobiles. Christine has the strange sensation of a mixture of time, past and present, as she moves along on the old wagon. She herself becomes the past…. In a circular motion, she returns to death, just as she is heading toward the future of life's experiences and of the inevitable end.

Death is seen, therefore, as a departure. It is an unknown route, involuntarily chosen, that leads either to past youth in memory and heredity or to the future end. (p. 463)

There are numerous examples throughout La Route d'Altamont of a belief in a circular structure to nature, life, and death. (p. 465)

The entire day spent by Christine on her momentous trip with the movers is … circular. She departs on an old wagon that carries her both to past times and to new future experiences. But she eventually returns home to the security of her family. This particular trip, foreshadowing Christine's entire life, also reflects the great voyage made by her family from Québec to the new West of Manitoba. The return trip will be made by an adult Christine who desires to rediscover her origins not only in Québec, but also in the old world, in France….

The trip past the town of Altamont to the Manitoban mountains is likewise circular, both in the fact that a return trip is undertaken and that both visits stimulate a mental return to the past in the mountains of Québec. These mental wanderings are, of course, the most obvious circular trips in the book. Through memories, one is able to rediscover one's own lost past and youth, and a form of second childhood, both beneficial and dangerous, may result.

As has already been mentioned, there exists as well a round trip, toward the future and toward the past, through one's children, through heredity. It often happens that parents, who have aged and who feel that they have not accomplished what they had hoped to do during their youth, will attempt to relive a full life through their children…. The circular movement is toward the future in one's children and the past in one's youth, precariously relived. But the movement is even more complex…. While remaining an individual in the present, one is also linked to the past and the future, as part of the great circle of life and death.

Despite the constant presence of death, can one definitively state that this circle closes? With the concept of heredity and a form of eternity or immortality where one remains alive in the memory of another, does the circle not continue infinitely? Perhaps a more accurate description of Gabrielle Roy's emphasis on circular structures is that of a series of concentric circles, all within one large circle encompassing the birth and death of humanity, or perhaps of nature itself. Only in this way could the ultimate circle close. But until that time, at least some semblance of continued or rediscovered youth and life can be found either in the hereditary circle of families or in the constant departure toward the unknown roads of memory that pass through Altamont. (p. 466)

Paula Gilbert Lewis, "The Themes of Memory and Death in Gabrielle Roy's 'La Route D'Altamont'," in Modern Fiction Studies (copyright © 1976, by Purdue Research Foundation, West Lafayette, Indiana, U.S.A.), Autumn, 1976, pp. 457-66.

Julia Randall

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I have stolen the title of my essay from the Dossiers de Documentation sur la Littérature Canadienne-Française…. But my working title, in bad French, was "Gabrielle Roy: Chère Maître." Gabrielle Roy has nothing in common with Henry James except mastery and a deep concern with emerging national character. Her one short-term expatriate, Pierre Cadorai of La Montagne Secrète, dies of homesickness. Casting around for helpful comparisons, I thought of Flaubert—but Roy has sympathy. Of Willa Cather—but Roy has subtlety. Of Katherine Mansfield—but she has force. Of George Eliot—well, yes, but hardly canoeing down the Mackenzie. Finally I paused at Tchekov, and was rewarded when my research heard her say

I lived part of my life under the secret charm of a nouvelle that I read when very young…. For a long while this early reading penetrated my thoughts, fashioned in me, so to speak, a way of seeing, of observing and grasping the real…. A nouvelle of Tchekov, The Steppe…. Perhaps my penchant for uniting landscapes and states of mind (âme) dates from this time.

In the following introduction to Roy's work, I have grouped the novels and tales without regard to chronology: The City, The Plain, and the Territory are my categories, transected by the Innocence/Experience or Garden/City theme…. This grouping seems to be the commanding one, though other groupings suggest themselves. (pp. 2-3)

The City, in Bonheur d'Occasion and Alexandre Chenevert, is Montreal; in the former the French working-quarter of St.-Henri, which looks from the docks and the railroad-tracks up toward the more affluent and more English West-mount…. [Bonheur d'Occasion] is both compassionate and angry (though not in tone). It was denounced in a Montreal pulpit and sold to Hollywood. Though in every sense a novel, it marks the transition, I think, from Gabrielle Roy journalist to Gabrielle Roy artist….

[Alexandre Chenevert] is realistic, but its realism is touched by both humour and poetry. A sympathetic, unsentimental, unself-conscious imagination penetrates it; otherwise, in its clarity of observation and of style, it is very French. (p. 3)

Like Alexandre Chenevert, La Montagne Secrète concerns the inner journey, but this time the external one starts at the Green Lake [of Alexandre Chenevert] and ends in an unfamiliar city. The setting, except to the final scenes in Paris, is in fact the Garden—and what a strange forbidding Garden it is, from the Mackenzie across Saskatchewan and Manitoba to Ungava and Labrador: Canada North, already perishing with the caribou before our eyes. (p. 6)

[It is a simple story] as lightly drawn as [the protagonist] Cadorai's sketches. It is left to us to be surprised by the bare reality (old Gédéon, a Klondike relic, does not at first recognize his own likeness), or to draw further implications. One is reminded of that steamy journey to the heart of darkness, if only by contrast to this icy voyage to the heart of light.

In the arctic Eden, man is not yet fallen. Those who meet—Pierre and Nina, Gédéon, Steve, Orok—are brothers and sisters. They suffer bodily privation, they must kill to eat, they survive in a hostile or at best an indifferent Nature. Yet even here the worm of imagination is at work, and his image is communicated by Pierre across a continent. (p. 8)

Somewhere between the Garden and the City lies the Frontier. It may be way up in the northwest (La Petite Poule d'Eau), where, because she persuades the province to send a school-teacher to her island family, Luzina Tousignant loses them one by one to the civilized south. Or in the northeast (La Rivière sans Repos), where the white man's impact on Inuit life is dramatized by Elsa Kumachuk's struggle to bring up her half-white son. Or it may be as near as the back streets of Winnipeg—la rue Deschambault, three steps from the prairie…. The overwhelming impression is one of distance from home. (p. 10)

To have expressed in words the secret connections between Garden and City, hill and plain, youth and age, pioneer and pilgrim—such is the work of Gabrielle Roy. She has "given the regard" to her vast open-ended country—"beautiful, but only to those who know how to look at it." Like Virginia Woolf, she sees the novel not as a succession of events, but as "a succession of emotions radiating from some character at the center." The mistake of the amateur writer is to think that the emotions are, in themselves, valuable to art. An opposite mistake is to think that the object irradiated can be known in itself, without taking into account the organ of perception. Art, if not consciousness itself, begins in a mysterious co-operation. But beneath this world of "fitting and fitted," of internal and external, subject and object, seems to lie some universal unchanging underground, where, as Edwin Muir has it, all our most precious experience takes place. None of us exists wholly in the world which others see, and upon which our daily life is necessarily based. We exist also in that underground where the artist, when his regard is deep enough, can take us; where the life of men and beasts and stars is indivisible. Gabrielle Roy's books will appeal to proponents of the One Life in Canada and abroad. (pp. 11-12)

Julia Randall, "Gabrielle Roy: Grand-daughter of Quebec," in The Hollins Critic (copyright 1977 by Hollins College), December, 1977, pp. 1-12.

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