Ray Ellenwood, «Ten Years After»

RAY ELLENWOOD has translated Jacques Ferron (The Penniless Redeemer, The Cart, Quince Jam, etc.) among other Québec writers, and is the author of Égrégore: A History of the Montreal Automatist Movement. He teaches English at what is left of Atkinson College, York University.

It seems the papers of the Rhinoceros Party have been bought by the National Archives in Ottawa, which is only fitting since the Rhinoceros in its pure form was resolutely federal. What a surprise and delight that someone in Ottawa noticed the obvious: like all good jokers, the animal was serious. Jacques Ferron was the Eminence of the Great Horn of the Rhinoceros Party, but his estate will not benefit from this archival attention because he sold the party in 1984, "which only goes to show more clearly," he wrote at the time, "that it was a private political party," adding that he had not sold the title of Eminence, since it would allow him to "enter into Quebecois Heaven by the main gate".
A prescient move -- he died a year later. How will he be received? As he wrote in
La charette: "Death shows a man for what he's made of and allows others to judge him. Before he passes on, that's impossible; he's just livestock on the hoof, leaving diverse impressions behind. You can't know his exact weight until he's dressed in the show window." He was a medical doctor, notorious trickster, political gadfly, playwright, author of short and long fictions, prolific letter writer and polemicist. Some may remember his role as critic of the government and the police during the so-called October crisis of 1970. Many, I hope, will know him for his wondrous or the half-dozen other books of his prose available in English. He was an extraordinary and enigmatic personality, a major proponent of Quebec independence and surely one of the great stylists of French literature in this century. I suspect the Rhinoceros papers may gather dust quickly but the living part of Jacques Ferron, his writing, continues to provoke all sorts of activity, mostly in Quebec. The purpose of this review is to give a sense of what has been going on with respect to the work and reputation of Ferron since his death in 1985, looking at different types of publications rather than giving a systematic, chronological account.
Before 1985, it was not easy to speak of a definitive text for any of Ferron's books because he had a tendency to rethink them from one printing to the next. With authorial revisions no longer complicating the picture, editors have felt free to begin publishing carefully checked and annotated editions and re- editions of his works. In fact, the process began before his death, and the necessity for it was explained by his daughter Marie in a preface to the 1986 re-edition
of l'Amélanchier. Fifteen years old and hard up for pocket money. she had taken over from her mother the job of typing her father's manuscripts, and so continued from 1970 to 1985. Ferron was bored by the whole question of editing, happy just to see the typing done. As she admits with hindsight, Marie was mainly worried about increasing her typing speed : "The fact that a comma might be placed here or there, or even that a given word might be substituted for another, didn't concern me very much."
Is it penance or pocket money that has caused her to team up with Pierre Cantin (author of the major Ferron bibliography) and Paul Lewis ? No matter, the important fact is, they are responsible for the publication of four carefully edited and annotated volumes of Ferron's work, among them l'Amélanchier, already mentioned, a magical and poignant story/essay which has the qualities of Alice in Wonderland mixed with political broadside, in this case against abuses in psychiatric medicine.
The first edition by the Cantin/Ferron/Lewis team was
Les Lettres aux journaux, a 500-page collection of almost 200 letters written to newspapers between 1948 and 1982, annotated, with an index and supplementary material helping to establish the historical and intellectual context. For those interested in the political and cultural history of Quebec, this is a goldmine. Written on the spur of the moment in response to current issues, such letters have a tendency to date very quickly, but there are enough of them here, on a wide enough variety of topics (many of which are coming around again), that they take on the timeless quality of good documentary. They can also be a corrective to certain cherished notions. Recent polemics by Mordecai Richler, among others, tend to paint all stripes of Quebec nationalism with the colours of Lionel Groulx. But here is Ferron, a proponent of Quebec independence whose work Richler chooses to ignore, writing against Groulx in a letter to a newspaper called Le Haut Parleur, in 1951:
The past of Abbey Groulx is the mobilization of shadows to fight living history. He wants to make us forget that we stopped being a tribe and became a people in 1837; that it was in revolt and under the influence of the French Revolution we became conscious of ourselves. By foisting his prehistory on us, he wants to make us forget that our history has barely begun; by foisting his puppets on us, that the fathers of our people (Papineau, Garneau, Fréchette) were not priests.
With his back turned to the future, leaning over a past of unhistoric trivialities, Abbey Groulx is a man from nowhere. I wouldn't be surprised if he never existed.
Another new edition by the same team is
Le Contentieux de l'Acadie, also a collection of letters and "historiettes" but this time focussing on the subject of New Brunswick and the French- speaking mariArial. Some of these texts were published in newspapers, but most in l'Information médicale et paramédicale, a periodical to which Ferron contributed regularly for many years, writing about anything that interested him. And finally there is La Conférence inachevée, a collection of pieces that Ferron was working on at the time of his death, having a great deal of trouble making a book out of materials that would not come together for him. more about that later.

Some of the re-issues of Ferron's work, such as Les Confitures de coings and Papa Boss in the TYPO format (a kind of livre de poche) are nothing more than re-arrangements of works already available in early publications. They are billed on their credits pages as new editions "reviewed, corrected and augmented," but as far as I can tell, there is nothing added but a brief bibliography and note on Ferron. Earlier editions of Les Confitures de coings included Papa Boss, L'Appendice aux Confitures de coings and La Créance. The publishers have created two books from one. Fine enough, Papa Boss never went well with the others, but it doesn't go any better, as it is now, with La Créance alone. Cheap editorial shuffling is what I call it -- fast becoming a staple of contemporary book marketing.
On the brighter side, these re-editions may show a continuing (textbook?) market for low-cost publications of Ferron's work, but they have to be distinguished from the more scholarly Cantin/Ferron/Lewis edition of L'Amélanchier, or the 1994 edition of La Charrette prepared by Ginette Michaud and Patrick Poirier. La Charrette is said to have been Ferron's favourite among his works. It well deserves and certainly needs the preface and notes provided here, which are informative almost to the point of obsession. And this leads to the observation that there is a scholarly industry growing up around Ferron with a new, very active generation interested in him and ready to carry on the work of early commentators and editors of his work, such as Jean Marcel Paquette.
Family, old friends and acolytes came together in 1992 for the first colloquium dedicated to Ferron, held, ironically, at the seat of those he loved to call "the McGill Rhodesians." At that event, the Société d'études ferroniennes was founded, and out of the conference came "Présence de Jacques Ferron", a collection of articles representing a wide variety of approaches, including some that announced important changes in the way Ferron was being seen. Long recognized and celebrated as the great nationalist author of Québec, the writer who mapped its mythical territory in his stories, Ferron was now regarded by Ginette Michaud and others from another angle, less imposingly public, as the uncertain, anguished, intensely personal author of the later works in which he wove together fictive threads of his life as doctor/writer along with meditations on his experience as a general practitioner at Mont-Providence and Saint-Jean-de-Dieu mental hospitals. Fragments of an incomplete, "disastrous" book, which he often referred to as "Le Pas de Gamelin", were published in his lifetime (see, for example,
Rosaire, L'Exécution de Maski or Gaspé Mattempa) but they never amounted to a work he considered finished.
It is this "other" Ferron the editors (Michaud and Poirier again.) wanted to investigate in
L'Autre Ferron, a diverse collection of articles and unpublished documents, the most recent work on Ferron, just launched in May, 1995. In the biased opinion of this contributor, L'Autre Ferron is an excellent book, with all kinds of fascinating new material, including unpublished sections of "Le Pas de Gamelin" as well as critical articles, interviews and letters that shed light especially on Ferron's later years. But there is also a piece by Marcel Olscamp on the period in the late forties when Ferron was a tenderfoot doctor in the Gaspésie . Since many of his most famous stories are based on his experiences there, the Gaspé years have taken on mythical proportions. Olscamp's investigations bring us down to earth a little.
Emerging gradually is yet another Ferron : the private correspondent, obviously not different from, but an extension of, the one who published hundreds of open letters. Since 1985, two books of private correspondence have appeared, a tip of the iceberg, a sign not only of his astounding energy, but of his great generosity. of course he used his correspondents to try out his ideas; this will become more and more clear as additional letters come to light and we get a glimpse of the total web of his writings, seeing the connections between novels, plays, polemics and private letters written at a given moment. Ferron saw writing as the ultimate expression of liberty, for others as well as for himself, and so he not only encouraged but provoked people to write, and to take the privilege seriously.
Published in 1988,
Le Désarroi, is a small collection of letters written between 1981 and 1983 by two men who never met, never even talked on the telephone: Ferron and the well-known psychiatrist and author Julien Bigras (L'Enfant dans le grenier, Ma vie, ma folie, etc.). Instigated by Bigras and taken up with some reluctance by Ferron, this correspondence is rooted in their work with mental patients. Bigras writes : "You're the only one I know who can talk of these people with such simplicity. And with such love." But there is also the common experience of each author's own brush with madness and despair. Besides the sheer weight of information in these letters relevant to Ferron's later years and his work at Mont-Providence and Saint-Jean-de-Dieu in the sixties and seventies, and despite the someArial self-critical and despondent note on both sides, this book is fascinating for what it shows of two very different writers who can't resist strutting their stuff from time to time. Bigras is an immodest man of great energy whom Ferron obviously admires and wonders at, not without an edge of mockery.
Much more of a surprise to Quebec readers was the publication in 1990 of
Une amitié bien particulière, a selection (with some potentially injurious material deleted) of Ferron's letters to John Grube, who is neither from Quebec, nor a translator, nor even a Kebeklitist, but a teacher of English at the Ontario College of Art. What's more, the letters were mainly concerned with one pivotal moment in recent Quebec history, the "October Crises" of 1970. Grube had read one of Ferron's newspaper letters attacking the official version of events and had contacted him to offer support and collaboration. The book therefore supplies important information about the period, including a bibliography (the result, no doubt, of Grube's documentation) and an essay by Quebec historian Georges Langlois. Much of what Ferron exchanges with Grube remains touchy even today. There is a tendency in Quebec, and not only in Quebec, to let this particular pack of sleeping dogs lie. When the book was published attention focused, not on the political questions it raised, but on the fact that another unknown side of Ferron had been revealed. Here he was writing to an unknown Torontonian about intimate Quebec matters and, in the process, revealing shocking things, such as the fact that he, Jacques Ferron, author of so many wonderful anticlerical diatribes, had taken communion in 1976!

There are indeed fascinating personal revelations in these letters, and not only about Ferron. After Grube announces he has made his homosexuality public, the doctor accuses him of holding his Achilles' heel in his hand and proceeds to make one snide remark after another concerning Grube's "theory". I would be surprised if Grube received these barbs with eyes raised to heaven, but we will not know until the other half of the exchange is made public. For the moment, all we have are comments from Ferron to the effect that Grube's letters are a work in their own right, "And the most amusing part for me is this: they will take everybody by surprise."
Many of the new documents available, and indeed much of the scholarly activity mentioned, are beginning to show Ferron's rare capacity to inspire both veneration and affection in an astonishing variety of people. A very real strength of emotion can be sensed in two quite different books with which I would like to conclude this overview: Victor-Levy Beaulieu's Docteur Ferron and Betty Bednarski's
Autour de Ferron.
One of the most prolific, inventive and controversial writers of his own generation in Quebec, Beaulieu has displayed his great admiration for Ferron in many ways, saying he considers him "the only truly national writer that contemporary Quebec has produced," placing him, in other
works as well as in Docteur Ferron, among the pantheon of great builders of national myths such as Victor Hugo and Herman Melville. As he did in Monsieur Melville, Beaulieu mixes biography, fiction, autobiography and literary criticism in Docteur Ferron. The book is a pilgrimage through Ferron's personal and fictional landscape taken by Abel Beauchemin, alter-author of one of Beaulieu's cycles of novels; Samm, an Amerindian woman who appears in a number of his works; and Belial, who haunts Ferron's tales and plays in various forms. The result is a kind of highly self-conscious celebration for, identification with, and appropriation of the admired author.
Originally broadcast as a series of radio programmes, Docteur Ferron has a dramatic quality designed to
appeal to a wide, not necessarily academic audience, and the published book has lots of photographic documentation, obviously to bridge the gap between "literary" and "popular." Beaulieu is not a careful historian, and the book has many inaccuracies (Frank Scott, who was a poet, lawyer and Dean of Law at McGill, is repeatedly described as a Sociology Professor), but Docteur Ferron is informative and lively, and Victor-Levy Beaulieu, in the final analysis, is an excellent reader of Ferron, capable of important insights into his work. He is particularly good, it seems to me, when discussing Ferron's plays (which are the one part of his work which may be in some danger of being ignored), when giving the "Historiettes" the importance they deserve, and when foregrounding the presence of Amerindian and Metis history in Ferron's great encyclopedic tale, Le Ciel de Québec.
One aspect of Ferron's work about which Beaulieu has an obvious blind spot is the presence in it, and in Ferron's life, of English and English Canadians, major parts in the fascinating complex which Betty Bednarski calls the "other". Professor of French at Dalhousie, Bednarski has translated, taught and written about Ferron for years. Her book begins as a meditation on translation, moves to a discussion of the presence in Ferron's writing of curious words such as "brecquefeste", "neveurmagne" or "ouiguine", then proceeds to an analysis of Ferron's use, in different books, of various characters representing Frank Scott, and the way those characters are often surprisingly fused with the narrators of the works. So, in Quince Jam there is Francois Menard, the narrator, and Frank Archibald Campbell:
Frank not only embodies for Francois all that is admirable and despicable in the English Canadian, he is an alter ego, not an enemy -- or not just an enemy -- but a veritable other self. At once the same and different, hated and loved, the English "other" is a vital point of reference in Francois, search for himself. Frank is a medium and an obstacle. To come to terms with him, to deal with him, is absolutely essential if the Québécois narrator is to recover his soul -- his own and, by implication, Quebec's. I knew that for close to a decade little of consequence, and certainly neither death nor redemption, could come about in Ferron's fictional universe without reference to this same Frank, identified clearly in Quince Jam's appendix, recognizable always, in his various guises, as the one and only F. R. Scott.
From here, Bednarski is led to talk about the historical events that changed this relationship, and about the highly complicated "alterity" in Ferron's more autobiographical later writing, such as the truly bizarre and poignant L'Exécution de Maski, in which Ferron's writer/ego finally does away with his doctor/ego once and for all. Finally, she brings it all around to a discussion of translation, reading, writing and alterity which is at once highly theoretical and highly personal because it speaks about the empathetic fusion in her own mind of herself and her subject. The result is a book which is scholarly (winner of the Prix Gabrielle-Roy), very different in tone from Victor-Levy Beaulieu's, and yet no less intense in its affectionate admiration for Ferron.
And so Ferron's reputation is being well served by his compatriots and friends writing in French, producing an average of more than one good book a year. Mention of him in English Canada is very rare, perhaps because no new translations have appeared for some time. Betty Bednarski is apparently working on
La conférence inachevée, but that is the only activity I know of. Too bad. Now is the time we need him most, with his political "historiettes" on the logic and urgency of Quebec independence and his gleeful slanderings of Pierre Trudeau.


  • Les Lettres aux journaux by Jacques Ferron, ed. Pierre Cantin, Marie Ferron, Paul Lewis; Préface, Robert Millet (VLB éditeur, 1985)
  • L'Amélanchier by Jacques Ferron, ed. Pierre Cantin, Marie Ferron, Paul Lewis; Préface, Gabrielle Poulin (VLB éditeur, 1986)
  • La Conférence inachevée: Le pas de Gamelin et autres récits by Jacques Ferron, ed. Pierre Cantin, Marie Ferron et Paul Lewis; Préface, Pierre Vadeboncoeur (VLB éditeur, 1987)
  • Le Désarroi: correspondance by Julien Bigras and Jacques Ferron (VLB éditeur, 1988)
  • Autour de Ferron: Littérature, traduction, alterité by Betty Bednarski, Préface, Jean- Marcel Paquette (Éditions du GREF, 1989)
  • Une amitié bien particulière letters by Jacques Ferron to John Grube, Introduction by John Grube, with an essay, "Octobre en Question", by Georges Langlois. (Boréal, 1990)
  • Les confitures de coings: suivi de L'appendice aux Confitures de coings by Jacques Ferron (Éditions de L'Hexagone [TYPO], 1990)
  • Papa Boss: suivi de La Créance by Jacques Ferron (Éditions de L'Hexagone [TYPO], 1990)
  • Docteur Ferron, Pèlerinage by Victor-Levy Beaulieu (Éditions Stanké, 1991)
  • Le Contentieux de l'Acadie by Jacques Ferron, ed. Pierre Cantin, Marie Ferron, Paul Lewis; Préface, Pierre Perrault. (VLB éditeur, 1991)
  • Présence de Jacques Ferron, ed. Jean-Pierre Duquette, Jane Everett, Marcel Olscamp. Special number of Littératures, 9-10 (1992)
  • La Charrette by Jacques Ferron, éd. Ginette Michaud and Patrick Poirier; Préface, Ginette Michaud (Bibliothèque québécoise, 1994)
  • L'Autre Ferron, éd. Ginette Michaud and Patrick Poirier (Éditions Fides, 1995)

Notre équipe
Rédaction et conception générales : Luc Gauvreau
Collaborateurs : Pierre Cantin, André Berger, Marcel Olscamp avec le soutien et les encouragements de Marie et de Martine Ferron, et l'aide financière du groupe de recherche "Éditer Ferron" et de la Fondation du Prêt d'honneur de la Société Saint-Jean-Baptsite
Conception et réalisation du site Internet par Vortex Solution