Maria Chapdelaine (1914)
Louis Hémon (Macmillan, 1973; trans: W.H. Blake)
175 p. First reading.
I have had some difficulty deciding just what to say about Maria Chapdelaine. It is a wonderful book, and it would be easy enough for me to praise this or that aspect of it, but somehow the things I would really like to say are eluding me. Despite its slender size the book is bigger than I am. I’m just going to ease into this Book Note and see what happens.
Maria is a young woman living with her parents and siblings in a remote cabin in Quebec. Her story is simple in its outlines, but deals at each step with elemental realities: love, family, faith, death. The author Louis Hémon was a Frenchman who came to Quebec to live and work among the kinds of people about whom he writes — simple, hard-working, open-hearted people — and he writes with a singing admiration that only occasionally tips over into sentimentality.
All rural Canadians know that the turning of the seasons is one of the central realities of country life: the annual cycle of melting snows, spring rains, the sowing of crops, the summer evenings with their long-fading light and fireflies, the open skies and midnight auroras, the ripening garden, changing leaves and harvests, and finally, inevitably, the cool breath of Old Man Winter and the onset of the long dark. Winter in rural Canada means hay-wagon rides, hot chocolate and apple cider, and the satisfying crunch of snow underfoot, but also howling winds, impassable snowdrifts, and real danger if caught in a storm. The sheer ferocity of a winter storm and the enormous labour to dig out in the aftermath I remember from my boyhood on the Alberta prairie. At such times one knows nature as an almost irresistible force, thrilling in its power to arrest and overrule one’s best laid plans, and she even reveals herself as a kind of moral teacher, sweeping in to contradict our self-importance and to deny us the fulfillment of our desires. She teaches humility.
Such thoughts are very much in the spirit of Maria Chapdelaine. These rural peasants dwell under the shadow of the seasons and the weather, and the shape and texture of their lives are formed in relation to it. Hémon understands this, and so he lovingly describes the spring melt, and the hot summer nights, and the cool and quiet winter days. The struggle to make a place for human life in these wilds is the daily bread of these peasants. They are people of the land, and their labour to bring order and fruitfulness to the wilderness are dignified by Hémon’s simple portrayals of their work.
This is all fine, yet the real reason to treasure Maria Chapdelaine lies further up and further in, and here I run up against my own inadequacy to express it. The culture of these peasants is in the sharpest contrast to our own. In many ways, theirs is a pre-modern society — technologically inferior, of course, with serious consequences, but that is not the main point. They are not modern on the inside. The modern notion of the punctiliar individual crowned by reason and will, emancipated from history and nature, maximizing choice and following desire — this is completely absent. Life for them is not a rationally organized scheme of self-indulgence. They have desires, of course, but also virtue. These people are not alone; they have family and neighbours (remember those?). They are not divided from one another by their mutual reliance on government; they govern their own affairs in co-operation. They talk to one another. They are one in their faith, and they pray together. They sing, and their stories and songs are their own, not merely delivered to them by market analysts. In short, they have a genuine culture.
Am I romanticizing? I hope not. I can only say that when I read Nietzsche’s description of “the last man”, it is quite easy to see in it a description of an average citizen of a modern liberal democracy. The same simply cannot be said of Hémon’s peasants, and that suggests to me that much has been lost, and quickly. Maria Chapdelaine was written less than a century ago.
This at least hints at the sorts of thoughts that this book evoked in me. I realize that I have passed over the story, and the heroine herself, in silence. She is a wonderful character: thoughtful, modest, and richly feminine. I would like to say more about her story, but time runs short this evening. Next time.