Around the island of Jacques Ferron

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Around the island by Jacques Ferron

Photo: Tiffet Jacques Ferron, son of a notary organizer for the Liberal Party, brother of Marcelle, painter who signed the manifesto Refus global,< /i> sees politics, like art, as an essential part of being-in-the-world.

Once a month, under the pen of Quebec writers, Le Devoirof literature proposes to revisit in the light of current events works from the ancient and recent past of Quebec literature. Discoveries? Proofreading? Different look? A choice. An initiative of the Académie des lettres du Québec in collaboration with Le Devoir.

It's 1965, in the middle of an effervescent decade . The novel The Night, by Jacques Ferron, is published by Parti pris, a left-wing nationalist review and publishing house. The Quebec novel then made its mark, with Hubert Aquin, Réjean Ducharme, Marie-Claire Blais. Born in Louiseville in 1921, Ferron is their eldest. Why reread it today? Writer, doctor, Jacques Ferron was passionate about politics, and his story immerses us in an era in continuity with our current… island.

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This text is published via our Perspectives section.

On October 3, 2022, the victory of the Coalition avenir Québec (CAQ) shattered bipartisanship. Four formations share the opposition: a historic party in disarray, a left-wing party, a separatist party and a right-wing party. Quebec is fragmented. On October 8, The Economist titled its article on our elections: “Isolated but not independent”. Is Quebec, he asks, “in or out? The answer reads: “Quebecers want a furiously [fiercely] nationalist provincial government in a united Canada.” In the eyes of the magazine, Quebec appears as a contradictory island.


Half-tale, half-novel,The Nightconsists of a round trip between the South Shore and Montreal, via the Jacques-Cartier Bridge. To me, who lived my childhood less than a kilometer from this bridge, this story revealed to me my situation in the world. Insularity is his subject. The character-narrator, François Ménard, manager of a bank branch, is awakened one night by a phone call. A certain Frank, whom he considered “dead”, insists on seeing him, in Montreal. Ménard takes a jar of jam made by his wife, Marguerite, and goes to meet this “Devil”, who speaks English of Cambridge. England, is it not, unexpectedly arises in our universe, like, recently, King Charles III.

Ménard's motives are personal, existential. He wants to “know what the night is”, find his “soul”. In ten minutes on foot, he reaches the taxi stand where a driver, Alfredo Carone, watches. The tale is encrypted, like a dream: Caron is the surname of Ferron's mother, Charron is the ferryman of the underworld. As in a dream too, the journey, upward, is without obstacles: the street “longened into an avenue which, without hurrying and winding with detours in the shadow and returns to the view, rose towards the illuminated city , crossed the bridge, climbed to the top of Mount Royal”.

In the same movement, the writing summons the great Western context: Faust(Marguerite, the devil, the lost soul); Kafka (first name, waking dream, topography): “The Castle rose electrically […]. It was the first time I was invited there. I was going against the grain of all my past nights. »


From his dormitory suburb, Ménard has arrived on the island of otherness. As soon as he sets foot there, a violent punch rises from the past when Frank, a tall “six-foot-three”, measures him “high, very high”, “in the middle of the street”, as he had appeared to him, “twenty years ago”, when he was lying on the sidewalk, following a riot. Ménard, a communist sympathizer, took part in a demonstration against the founding of NATO (1949). Frank was there as a senior police officer. Brought to the police station, the narrator was subsequently brought to justice. During a parody trial, he will deny possessing his Communist Party card.

Ménard forgot the Party, the Iron Curtain and NATO, married a Gaspé woman and became a notable in the suburbs. Having climbed the ranks of the Majestic Bank, he enriched himself somewhat and reached the ceiling assigned to Francophones by the (Montreal) financial hierarchy. His nocturnal escapade revives, in situ, his insubordination, his resentment, his protest. He never ceased to be a “communist” (in the sense in which he understands that word).

Montreal is an island, of course. A metropolis, a melting-pot, a cultural melting pot, a financial place: island in the literal and figurative sense. The 2022 elections confirm this. “The CAQ remains excluded [shut out] from the metropolis,” says the article quoted above. Quebec is isolated, but Montreal “is really [truly] an island”, a powerful nucleus, surrounded by “crowns” that do not resemble it. Quebec appears as a “fractal object”: the pattern of insularity is observed there at different scales. Montreal is also a linguistic battlefield. If submersion is always a possibility of the island condition, the threat, in the case of Quebec, comes from the inner core, as much as from the outside.

In his waking dream, our forty-year-old feels, against all expectations, curiosity about the moods of his English-speaking counterpart. “Neveurmagne [sic] his job, [he's] a pretty nice guy,” he says. Who is this Frank? We know that the character owes a lot to a lawyer, specialist in constitutional law at McGill, poet, translator of Anne Hébert, member of the NDP: Frank R. Scott (1899-1985), whom Ferron knew in socialist circles. The son of an “Anglican pastor who calmly wrote verses amid the tranquility of Quebec”, he grew up isolated in the shadow of the citadel of Quebec.

Ferron, who broke with the New Democratic Party (NDP) and founded the Rhinoceros party in 1963 to parody federalism, is well aware of the existence of English-speaking islands on the Quebec island. He is also an avid reader of Anglo-Canadian poetry. Poetry is a bridge. But the English of the quoted poems is not always translated, significantly creating the absence of a… bridge.

The bridges

Ménard donates his jam to Frank, who rejoices: “My mother used to make it too. When I taste it, my childhood will live again… you're thinking of Proust, aren't you? A dialogue begins, between gentlemen. Jam is a bridge, sensory, cultural. Literature is another. But Frank states, a little meanly it seems to us, that it was Samuel Butler (1835-1902), and not Proust, who “first” discovered the mechanism of involuntary memory. He recites a poem by Butler about Montreal, which the narrator did not know. “So we don't exist for you?” he reproaches her. Relationships are rocky. Two solitudes

They walk towards the Alcazar, “a small private mansion transformed into a brothel”. There, a woman, Barbara, reminds the narrator of his “younger mother”, an expression referring to Ferron's own mother, who died of tuberculosis at 32 when he was 10. The writer merges with his narrator, who finds his “soul”, his self, his childhood, “a river”, he says, evoking forests, steeples, Anglican “mittens”, succession of “little compartmentalized countries” which form the “pyramid” of the country of Maskinongé, bounded by three rivers. The personal quest is satisfied. The original problem remains: “I also had to figure Frank out,” Ménard notes. But he never will: Frank died while he was with Barbara, “undiagnosed”, possibly as a result of tasting the jams.

Fall of the night, this “fool's market”. Carone reappears. Of Sicilian origin, he plays the role of adjuvant. The return is dysphoric. The Jacques-Cartier Bridge, notes Ferron, has two parts, the one that leads to Montreal being provided with arches. “Downstream the perspective was different, blocked by the impasse of the nearby countryside where, from the last lampposts to the first stars, the vague fields, the brushwood, the groves, the clouds formed with the darkness an enormous jumble, the cesspool to which was attached, in the furtive and withdrawn residences on each side of the street, the rest of the working classes stunned with fatigue […]” Côteau Rouge, Ville Jacques-Cartier, the medical territory of Doctor Ferron appears, by projection, like an island dark.

In a notebook, Ménard will find, post mortem, ambiguous remarks by Frank on Quebecers, called “French Canadians”. Walking, at dawn, towards his home, he surprises a stranger painting “a signpost”: the “first Effelquois”. He returns to the bank.

It's not the end yet. Bombs explode in Canada Post mailboxes. Having become a member of the Parti Québécois (PQ), involved in the October crisis (1970), Ferron published in 1972 a “corrected” version of La nuit: Les Jams de Coings. There he “dismisses” Frank, without reconciliation.

In October 2022, the CAQ wave isolates the English speakers of Montreal Island and isolates the Liberal Party. The island within the island within the island… This logical, topological structure is a bridge. Seen from this bridge, the CAQ wave can be linked, by imagination, to the unfulfilled aspirations of citizen Ménard. One can imagine that the “new” Conservative Party is no stranger to him, he who was “nationalist, Socialist”. The egalitarian ideals, which remain its values, are now represented by Quebec solidaire (QS), a party closely linked to Montreal.

The 1965 story ends with the desire to liberate “the country”, which will give birth of the Parti Québécois. These continuities are not artificial. Jacques Ferron, son of a notary organizer for the Liberal Party, brother of Marcelle, painter who signed the manifesto Refus global, conceives politics, like art, as an essential part of being-in-the-world. Of being-in-the-world… male. But that's another subject. His story, despite this blinker, has not aged.

La nuit

Jacques Ferron, Parti pris “Paroles”, no 4, Montreal, 1965, 134 pages. N.B. Reissued in paperback format at several stores, La nuit is now out of print. The novel can be found in the library. Notice to publishers, rights holders.