While we were on vacation, I picked up a slender Image book from a shelf, part of the very random collection of books scattered throughout the lodge. This book was called Maria Chapdelaine, a novel written in 1913 about a girl living in the wilds of French Canada, who has to decide between three suitors and the different lives they promise. The author is Louis Hémon, a Frenchman living in Quebec who drew from his recollections of life in Péribonka, a small town built where the Péribonka River flows into Lac Saint-Jean.
Hemon wrote in French tinged with the Quebec patois. The edition of which I read the first few pages was in English, but the language was simple and clear, and I thought that perhaps I could read it in French. And so I am, with a old library copy from the 20s. When I slant the pages in sunlight, the press of the letters casts shadows across the old rough paper. The book is, in its way, like the story: simple, old, plain.
Maria, as best I can tell past my basic decoding of the text, seems to be a bit shallow, her head turned by a recent sojourn across the lake to the town of Saint-Prime, where the houses are built close together and the forest has been cleared away so that the land is clear, free of the ubiquitous stumps. She regrets that her father has the drive of one who must clear the land, who gets the itch to move once a semblance of civilization takes root. She is a bit vain, but seems at root a good girl who knows that the life her family leads is one that will always involve isolation and grinding hard work. But the right man might promise a better life...
I don't understand every word of the French, but I find if I read a paragraph or a page and work it out from the context, I grasp the story about as well as if I look up every word I don't know. There are some Quebecois constructions that don't make a lot of sense on a word-by-word basis but are decipherable as part of a paragraph. I am getting a good sense of the vastness of the Canadian forest, the bleakness of the northern winters, the sound of the ice melting on the river, les pionniers dans leur maisons de bois.
Alors ils se mirent tous à parler une fois de plus del la saison qui s'ourvrait et des travaux qui allaient devenir possibles. Mai amenait une alternance de pluies chaudes and de beaux jours ensoleillés qui triomphait peu à peu du gel accumulé du long hiver. Les souches basses et les racines émergeaient, bien que l'ombre des sapins et des cyprès serrés protégeât la longue agonie des plaques de neige; les chemins se transformaient en fondrières; là où la mousse brune se montrait, elle était toute gonflée d'eau et pareille à une éponge.
Then [the family] started to speak once more of the springtime which had begun, and the work that began to be possible. The month of May alternated between warm rain and beautiful sunny days which won out bit by bit over the accumulated ice of the long winter. The low stumps and (?) emerged, although the shadow of the various trees protected the long agony of the patches of snow; the roads transformed into mudpits; where the old brown foam of snow (la mousse brune, an elegant bit of description) piled up, it was like a sponge full of water.
I did look up gonflée, which I'd guessed as "pockmarked" but actually meant "inflated". Racines I passed over, as well as les sapins et des cypres serrés -- clearly some kind of trees (cypress, obviously, but I don't know serrés unless it's related to serrated, and perhaps sapins is saplings?).
I'm going to spend September working through Maria Chapdelaine, and I'd love to have company, in either French or English. (Project Gutenburg has the French online.)
UPDATE: Reader Catholic Bibilophagist notes that Amazon has a free Kindle version of Maria Chapdelaine in English.
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