Literature in French: Theory and Criticism

No French-language literary critic in Canada seems to have stature among writers equal to that of Bayle, Sainte-Beuve or Barthes in France. Nevertheless, several writers have won a degree of prominence as much (if not more) for their works of criticism as for their other writings.

Literature in French: Theory and Criticism

No French-language literary critic in Canada seems to have stature among writers equal to that of Bayle, Sainte-Beuve or Barthes in France. Nevertheless, several writers have won a degree of prominence as much (if not more) for their works of criticism as for their other writings. Their ranks include members of the interwar generation: Marcel Dugas, whose critical prose has poetic overtones; Berthelot Brunet, whose breezy histories of French and French Canadian literature have much more life than his vapid novels; Victor Barbeau, sole editor and jack-of-all-trades of Les Cahiers de Turc, which appeared October 1921-March 1922 and October 1926-July 1927; Valdombre (pseudonym of Claude-Henri GRIGNON), whose virulent pamphlets (see ESSAY IN FRENCH) are as much polemic as criticism.

This period also saw the critical publications of Albert Pelletier, novelist and journalist Harry Bernard and poet Alfred DESROCHERS. The list is short, not because criticism has been insignificant, but because it has always been considered a marginal literary activity. And that is the paradox. Criticism, because it has usually favoured the established order, bears responsibility for the fact that Quebecers have generally viewed their literature as a reflection of society.

The earliest French Canadian critics were journalists and a few amateurs, who set themselves the task of judging the few publications that appeared according to the norms of the French language and the rules of classical verse. The first literary critic was Valentin Jautard, a Frenchman, editor of the Gazette littéraire de Montréal, fd 1778 by his compatriot, Fleury Mesplet. The versatile Michel Bibaud practised the genre in the many publications which he himself founded in rapid succession, such as L'Aurore (1816-19), Le Courrier du Bas-Canada (1819-20) and La Bibliothèque canadienne (1825-30).

Father Henri-Raymond CASGRAIN was the first to judge works systematically, according to an explicit theory of literature. His goal was to dictate the guiding principles for all literary production: literature had to be "essentially religious and devout" and was to reflect the "genius" of the nation. He made literature his apostolic mission, thus founding a tradition of clerical and moralizing criticism that was to last almost a century.

Nobody had as much prestige and influence in this field as Camille ROY. A professor and later rector at UNIVERSITÉ LAVAL, he transposed to Québec the principles of 19th-century French criticism, with emphasis on the methodology and assumptions of Gustave Lanson and, to an even greater degree, the thought of Ferdinand Brunetière. Roy, however, also believed that allowances had to be made for the infant state of the literature to which these principles were being applied. He therefore lavished praise on many mediocre works and saved his wrath for the defence of Catholic morality and the French classical ideal of clarity. Despite occasional opposition, like that of journalist Jules Fournier, who took him to task for applying to nonentities critical methodologies developed for the study of masterpieces, Roy dominated and guided the perception of French Canadian literature for almost half a century. He had many disciples, including Maurice Hébert and priest-critics Albert Dandurand, Émile Chartier, Henri d'Arles, Marc-Antonin Lamarche and Samuel Baillargeon, who produced pedagogic works imbued with the ideals of French classicism and strict moral tone. In contrast, Louis Dantin, who wrote a remarkable introduction to the poetry of Émile NELLIGAN, was a sensitive aesthete and a man of subtlety, eclectic tastes and freedom from doctrinal limitations.

The pro-establishment narrowness of this literature and literary criticism explains the violence of the clash, which lasted 1918-48 under a variety of forms and pretexts, between the literary schools of the "men of the soil" and the "exotists" - the former seeking a "national" literature expressed in a "Canadien" language, the latter, partisans of French linguistic norms, preaching emancipation from any form of regionalism. The basic argument resurfaced in the 1960s and 70s, this time in the form of a debate about the choice of language and centering on the publications and critiques of PARTI PRIS and the early plays of Michel TREMBLAY.

After WWII, several critics of considerable stature emerged, among them Guy Sylvestre, Pierre de Grandpré, Roger Duhamel and Gilles MARCOTTE; the last three were, at different times, in charge of the literary page of LE DEVOIR. From the start of the 1960s, the tradition of journalistic criticism was maintained in the departments or weekly supplements of newspapers such as LA PRESSE, Le Devoir and Le Droit and in magazines such as Lettres québécoises devoted to current literature. National radio had a few programs of literary criticism, but television (whether Radio-Québec or Radio-Canada) virtually ignored the whole field.

The greatest growth of criticism in the last 20 years has been in university literature departments. Though it keeps close watch on French literature, this criticism is primarily concerned with Québec writings. Inspired by the transformations of criticism in France, it has multiplied and diversified its methodologies to thematic analysis, psychocriticism, sociocriticism and, more recently, structuralism and semiotics.

The 3 principal university magazines in Québec are Études françaises (U de Montréal), Études littéraires (U Laval) and Voix et images (U du Québec). The universities have also produced a wide range of monographs and surveys, most of them published in university-press collections: "Lignes québécoises" (Presses de l'Université de Montréal), "Vie des lettres québécoises" (Presses de l'Université Laval), "Cahiers du CRCCF" (Éditions de l'Université d'Ottawa), and "Constantes" and "Littérature" in the "Cahiers du Québec" series (Éditions HMH).

Despite the explosive growth of criticism since 1960 and a tradition that is more than a century old, no history of criticism has yet been written which pays as much attention to its specifically literary evolution as to its ideological evolution. Moreover, critics are now questioning the degree of their dependence on outside - especially French - methodologies and arguing the need to develop their own, along with appropriate literary theories. This may be the trend of the future.


Further Reading

  • F. Dumont and J.C. Falardeau, eds, Littérature et société canadienne-française (1964); G. Laflèche, ed, Dix ans de recherche québécoise sur la littérature française (1970-1979) (1980); G. Marcotte, ed, Présence de la critique (1966); G. Tougas, History of French-Canadian Literature (1966).