Drawings by Réjean Ducharme, Quebec's phantom author, on display in Quebec
Maison de la littérature exhibition shines a light on a trove of mid-1960s pencil-crayon creations by the noted recluse
The closely placed drawings on display at Quebec City's Maison de la littérature go up almost to the ceiling. They seem to have been made with a good selection of Laurentien pencil crayons, of the kind that were ubiquitous in Canadian schools when novelist Réjean Ducharme made these 198 drawings in the mid-1960s.
A few months after the then-unknown author sent his annotated sketches to a publisher in Paris in 1966, he became an overnight literary star. L'avalée des avalés (The Swallower Swallowed), his first published novel, made a profound impact in Quebec, through its playful style and celebration of childish innocence in a world spoiled by adults.
During his subsequent career, Ducharme published several more novels, wrote songs and screenplays, won many honours, and became the great recluse of Quebec letters. When he died last summer in Montreal at the age of 76, there were no interviews to quote, no TV clips to run and only two known photos, both of him as a young man.
The final disappearance of this phantom author occurred days before publication of his long-ago collection of annotated drawings, under the title Le Lactume. Ducharme, who also produced sculptures and collages of found materials under the name Roch Plante, had given his consent only a few months earlier.
The display at the Maison de la littérature combines a handful of originals with reproductions of all the rest, exploding the sequential contents of the book into a panorama. The drawings are mostly dynamic abstracts, in which curved and spiky forms nestle together or arch apart. Each one comes with a punning or aphoristic annotation.
"Circles and rectangles are my friends, trapezoids and parallelograms are too clever for me," one says. "Seeing people speak well makes one want to speak badly," another says.
Some seem remarkably timely. États-Désunis (Disunited States) shows a stylized, segmented map of the United States, with a row of vertebra-like shapes slicing across the northwestern states.
In 2016, 50 years after the appearance of L'avalée des avalés, the novel was entered into Quebec's official Cultural Heritage Registry, reserved for items of historic importance. Ducharme and his works had already been enshrined at the Maison de la littérature, which opened a year earlier as a place to celebrate and research the literary arts and history of Quebec, especially francophone Quebec.
It's lodged in a former Wesleyan church in Old Quebec, reconfigured by Montreal architects Chevalier Morales. The whole interior, including the soaring church vault, has been painted white, as if to make a blank slate within the kind of sacred institution that for many years tried to limit literary creativity in the province.
There are six permanent historical displays, in text and video, stationed throughout the reading room and library, including a section on the Catholic Church's attacks on literary freedom during the 19 th century. Another section looks at the literary impact of the Patriote uprisings of the 1830s, though the greatest spur to home-grown literature in that era was Lord Durham's scathing assessment, in his famous report of 1839, of French Canadians as "a people with no literature and no history."
Other sections celebrate major novelists, poets and playwrights, as well as painter Paul-Émile Borduas, whose 1948 manifesto Refus global "put in question traditional society … and reclaimed complete liberty without limits," as the text says. The Maison de la littérature is a peaceful place, but the echoes of old battles are always audible.
The Maison is run by the Institut Canadien de Québec, a discussion club founded in 1848. The club's activities and private library were seen by a powerful 19th-century bishop of Montreal, Ignace Bourget, as "a veritable centre of depravity," as one display puts it. A new annex next door to the old church, and off-limits to the public, provides living quarters for an author-in-residence and work spaces for others, including La Shop à Bulles (Bubble Shop), a collective of artists who work in graphic narrative.
Ironically, the building that houses this temple of francophone literature was given to the Institut in 1944 by anglophone businessman and senator Lorne Campbell Webster. (Full disclosure: Webster's son Howard later owned The Globe and Mail for 25 years, and his grandson Norman was Globe editor-in-chief in the late 1980s.)
The Maison also hosts talks and other events, some of them within sight of lingering traces of the building's previous transformation into a lecture and concert hall. Over all, it's a welcoming space, though even if it had been converted to its present purpose decades earlier, it's a safe bet that the reclusive Réjean Ducharme would never have visited.
Original drawings and reproductions from Le Lactume are on display at the Maison de la littérature in Quebec City through March 4 (maisondelalitterature.qc.ca).