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106: CHILDREN

#106: CHILDREN. In the decades after World War II the culturally embattled francophone community of Quebec found its literary voice in a burst of verse, prose, and adventurous publishing. There were two major poets, Saint-Denys Garneau and Anne Hebert (they were cousins) who led the way for a generation of interesting and individual verse. Fiction bloomed, from the comic surrealism of Roch Carrier’s La Guerre, Yes Sir! (which opens with children playing a game of hockey with a severed hand) and the claustrophobic world of Marie-Claire Blais’s Une Saison dans la vie d'Emmanuel, to the dark, adulterous countryside of Hebert’s Kamouraska—these being only the classics of a couple of generations of writers determined to mine the stories of the cities and countryside around them. Dialect fiction became one way to declare an independence of Paris: Antonine Maillet’s Pelagie-la-Charette, in the Acadian dialect, became a best-seller; Michel Tremblay made a career of the riotous local speech of Montreal; Blais wrote Un Joulanais Sa Joualanie, Joual being the Quebecois dialect. The success of Anglophone writers Robertson Davies and Margaret Atwood began a trickle of Canadian writers reaching American audiences. In 1971 Claude Jutra’s “Mon Oncle Antoine” became the first Quebecois film to be widely shown in the States; I remember the shock of seeing it, with characters wearing clothing I knew from my childhood in rural Connecticut, with its mix of Quebecois, Irish and Polish families, and of hearing the dialect of French I grew up with. A friend told me of his father laughing out loud at odd points in the film—it was the first time he’d ever seen a movie with people speaking as he did. Odd works crossed the border here and there, but Quebecois literature remains little known in the States.

Much Quebecois literature takes place in a fanged and inhospitable world—a soul-freezing Catholicism mixed with lots of snow and intense physical danger. (The word “unrelenting” comes to mind.) One of Margaret Atwood’s first books, a study of Canadian literature, is entitled simply Survival. In contrast, the fiction of Gabrielle Roy, for all the poverty of her characters, is plainer, less stylized—more touching than tragic, full of affection and sentiment. She arrived with a best-seller, Bonheur d'Occasion, translated as The Tin Flute; she followed it with seven novels, two books of stories, a book of essays, a couple of children’s stories and an autobiography. One of her last fictions, Ces Enfants de ma Vie (translated as Children of My Heart, which sentimentalizes it, as does the unfortunate tv version of 2000, filmed, to one’s everlasting regret, by Hallmark), remains my favorite of her works. These are short narratives in which the protagonist, barely out of school, relates her experiences as a teacher in a rural schoolhouse, itself an ethnic mish-mosh; each story is a child. Teachers and school boards can often drivel on about their sacred task, but the special gift of Roy’s stories is that it convinces us that they are not wrong; and she captures with sensitivity and attention the specific emotional temperature of a teacher’s bond with her students. I first read Ces Enfants de ma Vie some forty years ago, but again, as with Vasko Popa’s poetry, when a copy came into my hands recently I seemed to have it almost by heart, from the terror of a small boy’s first separation from his father (“Vincento”) to the boy with his armful of wildflowers racing the train at the end of “De la truite dans l’eau glacee.” In “L’Alouette,” she places her angel-voiced child in contrast with his aged audience as simply as a snapshot. The prose is chaste and simple—I don’t know how easy she’d be to translate. In an essay, she wrote, borrowing from Maeterlinck, “Si j’etais Dieu, j’aurais pitie des hommes.” Written at the end of her life, Ces Enfants de ma Vie proves that Roy did not have to wait for divinity to feel and express that pity.

The first paragraphs in turn of Wolf Mankowitz’s marvelous tale A Kid for Two Farthings rush us right into the world of his six-year-old protagonist, Joe, and what he knows: “He also knew that the Elephant and Castle was the In-fanta of Castile, a Spanish princess. He knew that Moses was an Egyptian priest, that the Chinese invented fire-works, that Trotsky was the best revolutionary, and that pregnant was going to have a baby.” Throughout the story we pick up things as Joe does, with the faith, mimicry and mousetrap retentiveness of a child’s mind. Joe’s world is III Fashion Street, in the Jewish East End of postwar London, specifically Mr. Kandinsky’s trousers-shop, where Joe spends his day while his mother works at a milliner’s. The action and cast are as precise and proscribed as an Austen novel, but the vinegar-dipped slang of Joe’s neighborhood gives the story its own speed and humor. Joe adopts a one-horned baby goat with the idea that he has found a unicorn; one of the things he knows is that a unicorn’s horn can grant wishes, and everyone in Joe’s down-at-heels neighborhood has a wish: a steam pants-presser, a diamond engagement ring, a big win in a wrestling bout, the return of a distant husband. Mankowitz’s inhabiting of Joe’s imagination pulls us into the narrative with ease and charm, and we’re delighted as the wishes all come true—all but one. Bloomsbury has reprinted Mankowitz’s 1953 hundred-page wistful comic gem, and I bow to them for doing it.

“Tout le monde ne peut pas etre orphelin,” goes the most famous quote from the French writer Jules Renard: Not every one gets to be an orphan. His short novel Poil de Carotte—or, in English, Carrot Top—is a harrowingly curt, heart-tearing story of what we now call a dysfunctional family; more specifically, a harridan mother, two indifferent siblings, a father long enclosed in a self-protecting silence, and a child who leads a bruising, terrified existence without a whisper of encouragement or affection. The sadism on the mother’s part reads like a textbook illustration of R.D. Laing’s most dismaying images of family life—a woman constantly on the social make but, within her circle, magnificently wrapped in the certainty of her own correctness. Her primary skill, other than bullying, is in putting her child endlessly in the wrong: she scolds him for not speaking when spoken to, and then for speaking with his mouth full. Renard’s dialogue and brief chapters are entirely fit to his subject—we understand how Poil de Carotte’s life lurches from one humiliation to another. The novel ends with an album: the briefest of one-shots, all of which are slaps to a youngest child’s hopes of kindness or even solitude. Blessedly for all of us, Renard carves a kind of knife-edge humor of recognition into the book, which is a kind of Pandoric protection until the book’s final, delayed horror, when we realize how common Poil de Carotte’s dilemma is: that his family is not so unusual as we might assume (or hope). This laconic masterwork has been reissued, in Ralph Manheim’s fine translation, by David Godine with Nonpareil Books; it includes the superb chapter illustrations by Felix Valloton. The French text has been endlessly reprinted and can be found easily online. The several film and television adaptations are wretched, with the splendid exceptions of the two versions directed by Julien Duvivier, a silent one in 1925 and one with sound in 1932: both are worthy of the book.

Compare Renard’s quote with the opening of The Golden Age, by Kenneth Grahame, the first of two books he did (along with Dream Days) of sketches of childhood: “I can see now that to children with a proper equipment of parents these things would have worn a different aspect.” This reflected Grahame’s own childhood, and formed his distinctive sense of humor: his children view their adult caretakers as good-willed but thoroughly buffaloed by late-Victorian respectability: people who go to take tea with the curate when they could be outside dibbling in the river, setting off firecrackers or chasing pigs—all of this viewed in retrospect by a narrator who has grown to adulthood, the gates of Arcadia closed behind him. The children’s privileged, middle-class existence may not sit well with readers accustomed to the more caustic sense of humor of the century just past; but I reread them recently, and found the stories still full of affectionate humor, and certainly felt the pang over childhood past that Grahame meant to give us. Few writers can so well evoke for us children’s ability to be entirely in the moment, or entirely inside their own imaginings, and Grahame’s nostalgia skates just this safe distance from the maudlin. If you don’t mind your humor colored with more of rose than of grit-black, these remnants of Edwardiana may still give you pleasure, and you can look forward from them to his later, piebald masterwork, The Wind in the Willows, still my favorite among the older children’s literature. The Golden Age and Dreams Days have been many times illustrated, with editions done by Ernest H. Shepard and Maxfield Parrish. Neither of these to my taste quite come off: Shepard’s a little too twee, Parrish a little too….Parrish. Grahame’s prose here works fine on its own.

As for evoking children being entirely in the moment, the photographer Robert Doisneau triumphed with that theme in the pictures gathered in Les Doigts Plein d'Encre (With Their Fingers Full of Ink) a book published by Editions Hoebeke in 1989 to illustrate some pages of prose by Francois Cavanna. Cavanna was a prolific writer and humorist, long associated with the Parisian satiric magazine Charlie Hebdo; the prose is a memory piece, slightly at variance with Doisneau’s photos, which haven’t got anything like memory or poetry in mind. Like so many great photographers, we have the feeling that he must have gone into the classroom (the street, the playground) and virtually disappeared: his kids seem to be unaware of the camera, and their faces and poses have the special expressiveness of people who don’t know they’re being caught on film. They look mostly to be working-class kids, and they’re a delightfully unruly bunch—part of Doisneau’s genius is to convey the energy children seem to pass to each other like current, so that they are expressive as individuals (it always pays to look at the faces in the background) but also as part of a group. Sometimes the moment they’re in is completely their own: look at the face of the boy gripping that pair of handlebars that aren’t attached to any bike, or the boy lying on a narrow bench alone in a corridor, tracing a figure on the wall with his knuckle—what world are they in? The boy at the top of the almost Brueghel-like playground scene, with all his limbs curved in mid-air—is he riding a horse? For all the wonderful period details of France before and after World War II—the old ouvrier smocks, the haircuts and knee-socks and chalkboards—the photos have a split-second immediacy that takes them straight into whatever today you’re viewing them from. As book design, Les Doigts Plein d'Encre has the plain look of a publisher’s job, but the images are genius.

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