Quebec writers craft love letters to Paris and Montreal by hand
MONTREAL—There is something undeniable about an object created by hand.
The colours, the cut-and-paste qualities, the almost childlike impulses or scratched-out words are the work’s most endearing qualities. The imperfections of the drawing, the collage, the handwritten love letter, render it all the more perfect.
The sparsity of such creations in an era of professional-quality production apps only enhances their sheen.
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Quebec has produced two such offerings this spring: two literary creations whose celebrated authors are as different as the scope of their works. But the handcrafted odes of francophone literary legend Dany Laferriére (to Paris) and Giller Prize winner Sean Michaels (to Montreal) remind readers of the written word’s power when put together by hand.
Laferriére’s novel Autoportrait de Paris avec chat (Self-portrait of Paris With Cat), is the 30th book from the Haiti-born author, who has been commuting regularly to France since his election in 2013 to the prestigious Académie Française, the committee of francophone intellectuals that has acted as the custodian of the French language since 1634.
But what sets this one apart from the previous 29 Laferriére books is the fact that it was written and illustrated entirely by the author’s own hand, from the cover page and spine of the 320-page book to the thousand or so drawings.
“All my merit comes from the fact that few people who draw as poorly as I have dared to create a book of this kind,” he writes. “What kind of book is it? I wouldn’t know what to call it, but I have never felt as free in my life as a writer.”
As the title suggests, the writer most often associated with Montreal and Haiti has produced a book about Paris. Not only the streets he has begun to tread with a local’s familiarity since his induction into the Académie, but also the mythic cultural meeting place of Ernest Hemingway and Gertrude Stein, of Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir, of James Baldwin and Chester Himes, and scores of writers, painters, dancers, artists who have come in exile or in search of their dreams.
“There is always a new writer who arrives in Paris with a book under their arm,” Laferriére’s protagonist — a yellow-haired, line-drawn version of himself — says at one point about Présence Africaine, a Parisian publisher and bookstore located around the corner from the Sorbonne and the Pantheon.
Each new arrival is another opportunity for discovery. Of cafés and bookstores and museums and galleries and parks and statues and restaurants.
“It is the work of a life,” he writes. “Nothing is as exciting as a new city — a never-ending novel.”
If there is one thing that links Laferriére’s work thematically with the Michaels zine — a 20-page, two-piece pamphlet formed using folded three-hole paper and a photocopy machine — it is this sense of wide-eyed appreciation and openness to discovery.
For Michaels, who won the Giller Prize in 2014 for his first published novel, Us Conductors, it’s the receding snow after a long, cold winter that allows him to see Montreal, his city, anew.
Entitled It Lasts Forever, the zine is made up of two pieces written in late April that are essentially prose-poem meditations on the things that make Montreal Montreal rather than some indistinguishable and ever-changing elsewhere.
“The snow, the French language — they’re what keep the city intact, preventing or delaying the sort of reinventions that ripple through Toronto, Vancouver, Hamilton, Halifax — even L.A. or New York,” he writes.
“The place can feel rude or hapless, inefficient — and arrogant in its grouchy and hapless inefficiency — but the truth is: I’m hapless. And occasionally grouchy. And certainly inefficient. And although I resent Montreal’s vices as much as any visitor, I recognize the virtue of living in a place that does not conceal its mood or character — a place that does not pretend or feign or even try too hard.”
A zine — rough-hewn and, perhaps, carefully unadorned — feels like the perfect vehicle for Michaels’ own personal Montreal. The typed and printed text has been posted over the author’s own squiggly and sometimes scratched-out scrawl. The text is broken up by black-and-white photos featuring the bagel shops and industrial architecture and the steel staircases of the author’s Mile End neighbourhood.
The finished product is a labour of small-scale literature that Michaels sold for $2.25 plus tax online, at a few local stores and out of a café where he often works. It was also a labour of love.
“A city like this takes hold of you footstep by footstep, evening by evening, church-bell by church-bell, stray cat by sparrow by bumblebee by moth, until you can’t imagine living anywhere else,” he writes.
“Perhaps I’ll have to move away one day. Life can take strange corners, who can tell. But by now the gravity here is traced on my — it’s bent my bones, taught my posture.”
En Scène is a monthly column in Quebec culture. Email: