Tuesday, March 20, 2018

Louis Hemon, Maria Chapdelaine: A Tale of the Lake St John Country (Macmillan, 1921/1924; reprinted by Grosset & Dunlap, April 1927). W.H. Blake, translator. Hardcover, no dust jacket, blue cloth boards with a partially debossed cover title, replicated on the spine. 288 pp., 8.5” x 5.5”. Very good condition. Previous owner’s name in pencil on the front endpaper, with a seller’s tag: “Granger Frere, Librairie-Papeterie, Montreal.” 

Born in Brest, France, Hemon studied law and oriental languages at The Sorbonne, and wrote for a sports journal,  before moving to London, then, in 1911, to French Canada. There he worked as a bilingual clerk in a maritime agency before moving to the Lac-Saint-Jean region, where he worked on a farm and wrote.

He was killed by a train in 1913, aged 33, having seen none of his books in print. Maria Chapdelaine was serialized first in Paris in 1914 and 2 years later appeared in Montréal in book form. But it was only after its 1921 French publication that the novel became a success. Today, this account of Québec peasant life is often seen as a symbol of individual and collective alienation. At the time, the novel was used to support a nationalist ideology of fidelity to the past and its traditions.

A story of a Quebecois pioneer family, Maria Chapdelaine is told from the vantage point of a daughter pursued by three very different sorts of men. The one who claims her heart dies in an accident; she must choose between a local boy and an American who promises her a world of wealth and ease. The book was a bestseller in France, selling over 400,000 copies; its success boomeranged back to its author’s adopted land in the 1920s.

Two competing English translations issued from Blake, who did this version, and Sir Andrew McPhail. The two began in collaboration, disagreed on the work, and parted amicably. Blake’s is widely considered the better, more comprehending version of this at times bleak tale of French-Canadian settlers eking out a living from the land.

Other works by Hémon are La Belle que voilà (1923), Colin-Maillard (1924), Battling Malone (1925), Monsieur Ripois et la némésis (1950), Lettres à sa famille (1968) and Récits sportifs (1982).

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