This is part of an ongoing series of interviews with people who are closely involved with Quebec literature on a daily basis as we continue to talk to publishers, readers, bookstore owners, and translators to get a feel for today’s publishing scene in Quebec.
A man of ideas and action, and an advocate of what he calls “lucid optimism,” Vincent Thibault has written more than fifteen books. Adventure novels, mystery, travel stories, short fiction, essays or screenplays, his work takes on surprisingly diverse forms, but always revolves around key themes: alienation, integrity, the meaning of kindness, our relationship to uncertainty, and the reconciliation between tradition and modernity.
What is your relationship to Quebec writing?
It varies from year to year. For one thing, I like to read classics; not that one has to read Homer or Balzac or whomever in order to appear educated; simply, I feel that the monuments of world literature help me decipher the world we live in. We’re mortals, aren’t we? And so our time is limited. And so it is precious. And so I’m quite picky regarding what I read.
That doesn’t mean that there are no real Quebecois classics, of course; only that the world is so vast that I haven’t yet claimed much of our very own, unique literary heritage.
Due to personal inclinations, half of the contemporary fiction I have read in the last few years have been either Japanese or American. But I’m always open to exploring new territories, and often Quebecois books just seem to fall right into my lap, when the time is ripe for me to really enjoy them.
What, if anything, would you say defines Quebec literature?
I’m not an expert. Cultural boundaries often seem more porous, nowadays: people travel much more than they used to, urban centers are more cosmopolitan, we are constantly in touch with new ideas, and generally speaking, we have been expanding our horizons.
So I personally find it hard to define Quebec literature without resorting to clichés and sweeping generalizations. I don’t know, for example, whether or not Esther Rochon, Nicolas Dickner and Guy D’Amours have anything in common, really. Somehow the short stories I’ve read from Gilles Pellerin and Claude Mathieu seemed much closer to Jorge Luis Borges than any other local writer.
That being said, I think it’s safe to say that in many Quebecois books, nature plays an important role (just like in New York literature, NYC often feels like a character of its own). Also, we seem to have an interest in social issues. That can also be seen in other Northern regions, and it is not so surprising that Scandinavian novels are often a big hit here. Unfortunately, though it is important—essential, indeed—to talk and write about mental health, violence, poverty and other such issues, oftentimes immature writers (regardless of their actual age) have a style that is overly angry, and though the reader can feel something, it comes with a lack of clarity, and the whole experience leaves one bitter.
What are some of the most important novels and books to come out of Quebec, in your view?
This is totally subjective, but here are two ideas off the top of my head: I think Hélène Dorion’s Recommencements could inspire millions of readers, all around the world; Jacques Poulin’s Le Vieux Chagrin, though somewhat humble, reaches a level of tenderness that makes it universal—if one is willing to slow down, that is.
We also have highly talented children’s book authors and illustrators, and amazing graphic novel artists. Michel Rabagliati—to name but one example—has made a real contribution to world literature.
Lastly, but most importantly, I think Quebec authors, artists and publishers can do a lot to celebrate the First Nations and to foster healing and true reconciliation; hopefully some of these works will inspire other countries throughout the world. It is not only in Canada that there has been an inexpressible amount of suffering amongst the Indigenous peoples.
What are some of your favourite pieces of Quebec writing?
I loved Christine Eddie’s Les carnets de Douglas. (And now that you have me combing my bookshelves: though it’s not necessarily a favourite, I’m looking forward to digging up again Stanley Péan’s amusing Jazzman!)
What are you reading at the moment?
Thinley Norbu’s astonishingly deep (and sometimes demanding) essays, in which those interested in genuine Buddhism can learn to sail and avoid the extremes of eternalism and nihilism.
Fiction-wise, the last novel I’ve read was Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye (a knife in the gut, but a mandatory read). I’m in the middle of Neil Gaiman’s delightful Stardust, and next on my list are Bruce Chatwin’s Songlines, Peter Matthiessen’s Snow Leopard and Jacques Bonnet’s Des bibliothèques pleines de fantômes.
What is the favourite book you’ve written or worked on?
As a publisher: Lafcadio Hearn’s Pèlerinages japonais (Carrefours azur, 2018).
As a translator: a most beautiful book by the Tibetan scholar and writer Tulku Thondup Rinpoche, to be released in 2020.
As a writer: I like Satori à Hollywood; though it is very much imperfect and at times naïve, it is always frank and I believe there are some great pages in the second half. Otherwise, the collected short stories I am currently working on—it’s somewhere between George Saunders and Haruki Murakami.
If you were to recommend that someone who has never read anything from Quebec pick up a book and start reading it today, which book would it be?
When I was working in bookstores, years ago, I often recommended Félix Leclerc’s Calepin d’un flâneur. It is a thing of beauty that works for all sorts of people, including those who don’t read much.
Photo credit: Martin Cauchon