Quebec literature: transforming darkness into a thing of beauty

Alex Noël

Alex Noël

Credit: Amélie Philibert | Université de Montréal

In 5 seconds

Alex Noël, a specialist on the modern Quebec novel and queer memory, comes to UdeM to teach Quebec literature.

Alex Noël fell in love with literature at a young age.

“I felt that my other interests—history, philosophy, politics—could all be found in literature, and so by choosing lit I wasn’t giving up anything,” recalled Noël, newly appointed as a professor in Université de Montréal’s Department of French-Language Literatures.

His interest in teaching, researching and creating literature was reinforced in CEGEP when he was selected to be on the jury for the prestigious Goncourt des lycéens literary award.

“I was part of a delegation of students that travelled to France to pick a winner among 13 books,” Noël recalled. “That experience was formative for me. We had to analyze the books from different angles and situate them within the history of literature and the work of other writers. I loved it!”

Noël is a three-time finalist for Radio-Canada’s poetry prize, winner of the Prix du jeune écrivain de langue française in 2016 for a novella published in France, and recipient of an award of excellence from Quebec’s Société de développement des périodiques culturels québécois (SODEP) for three articles in literary magazines, including a profile of ex-seamstresses at Fruit of the Loom. He has also published creative pieces in Liberté, Spirale, Moebius and Beside.

‘A broad range of tools’

This fall, Noël is teaching a compulsory course on the basics of textual analysis to first-year students fresh out of CEGEP. “They have to read 12 books. We study a variety of texts to give them a broad range of tools to use throughout their studies,” he explained. “I’m very happy to be giving this course. Before teaching at university, I taught CEGEP for three years, so now it feels like I’m welcoming my old students to UdeM.”

In addition to teaching literature in CEGEP, after finishing his Master’s degree Noël taught a course on Quebec literature at Jawaharlal Nehru University in New Delhi, in the winter semester of 2014. He will give a course on Quebec literature again next semester at UdeM, this time focusing on works from the 20th and 21st centuries and on the theme of dispossession.

When Noël arrived in India to teach Quebec literature, he was told he needed a theme for his seminar. So he asked himself: What is the common thread running through all of Quebec literature? Turning to the Quebec novels he had stuffed into his suitcase, he re-read the first two lines of Anne Hébert’s The Torrent.

“I was a child dispossessed of the world,” she wrote. “By decree of a will greater than my own, I was to renounce all forms of possession in this life.”*

Noël had a flash of insight: it is existential dispossession that characterizes not only this novella and the rest of Hébert’s work but also much of Quebec literature.

Seen through the lens of literary criticism, many Quebec novels appear to be stripped of some of the essential features of the novel form. Noël explains:

“Critics would list the constitutive elements of the novel as a genre, such as love, adventure, transformation, maturation, and then they would claim that one was missing, as if this were a deficiency or some sort of novelistic failure. It’s as if the novel form itself were dispossessed just as the story it tells is one of dispossession, as if there were a parallel between form and theme.”

Very dark novels

For example, the novels of Marie-Claire Blais are very dark. Many of them describe the period in Quebec history known as La Grande Noirceur (the great darkness). “What she says about Quebec is terrible,” Noël commented. “But at the same time, paradoxically, she transforms it into a thing of beauty.”

Existential dispossession in the Quebec novel was also the subject of Noël’s thesis and he plans to explore it next semester in his course on Quebec literature.

“I’m going to include different forms of negative experience. We’re going to talk about exile, failure, alienation, racism. I want to look at exclusion, at hindrance. These are all words that have cropped up often in critical discussions of the themes of Quebec literature over the years.”

Another focus of Noël’s research is Quebec artists and intellectuals who died from AIDS in the 1980s and ‘90s and have virtually disappeared from collective memory. In France many writers, such as Hervé Guibert, have written on this topic, but in Quebec the memory of AIDS in the arts world has largely gone unrecorded.

“It has often been said that Quebec literature was about the unreal, that it had difficulty grappling with the real,” Noël noted. “Well, AIDS was a fairly brutal confrontation with reality.”

Over 30 died of AIDS

When Noël started his research, he knew of only three Quebec intellectuals and artists who had died of AIDS. Now he has compiled a list of more than 30.

“Deep in the archives, for example, I came across poetry collections written by young men who succumbed to AIDS before being able to put the finishing touches on their work,” he said. “It really troubled me to learn the names of all those young men who died in their twenties or thirties, who were just starting to build a body of work, only to have it cut short by AIDS.”

This was how Noël discovered a nearly finished collection of poems by the photographer Guy Fréchette. He is now preparing the manuscript for publication and working on a catalogue for an exhibition next May in Nantes, France.

“It’s strange that there’s such a chasm in Quebec gay poetry between the older generation and mine, as if after the original trailblazers, the voices dwindled and only swelled again in recent years,” said Noël. “And this had an enormous impact on the poets of my generation because it was as though there were a legacy that couldn’t be passed down to us. I have always felt that AIDS played a role in this.”

Following his intuition, Noël interviewed a number of older university professors. Sure enough, “they talked about these very frail young men who suddenly disappeared mid-semester and never returned because they had died from AIDS. This happened in many universities but has been forgotten. Now that I’m aware of it, I feel a duty to remember.”

As part of this mission, Noël has organized an UdeM lecture series on queer memory to showcase LGBTQ2S+ archives. Last Sept. 26, for example, a panel discussion was held with the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence, a group of Montreal drag queens who were very active during the AIDS epidemic, supporting the sick and their loved ones, and who now help preserve archives and keep the memory of social struggles alive.


* Translation by F. M. Macri:, p. 186.

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