Diaries are odd things, particularly when they are written with publication in mind. Part gossip, part newsletter, at once intimate and distant, they provide a snapshot of how things appear to the writer on any given day. The British have developed them into an art form; North Americans, not so much, though Charles Ritchie and Allan Gotlieb have been exceptions.
In Quebec, published diaries are more common than they are elsewhere in Canada. Jean Paré, the former editor of L’actualité, published Journal de l’an I du troisième millénaire in 2002, for example. More recently, Dominique Lebel, a consultant who worked for Pauline Marois when she was premier, has published two large volumes of diaries. Now Robert Lalonde, the actor, director, teacher, and author, has published La reconstruction du paradis. It is a chronicle of his life after a fire destroyed his house and his library of 4,000 books. Moving from Sainte-Cécile-de-Milton to North Hatley, he rebuilt. “What started this book, in fact, is the astonishment with which I found that I was not in despair,” he told Le Devoir earlier this year. “There was an element of relief. A kind of good riddance that surprised me, because I was very attached to the place, and we had done a lot of work on it.”
Lalonde does, however, mourn the loss of his books (“At least you won’t quote so much,” his editor quips). He also observes the changing of seasons and embarks on a translation of Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass. “I got rid of the tyranny of storytelling in a straight line,” he writes, citing the French author Jean Giono. “The plot twists, the beginning, the middle, the end of the story don’t matter to me anymore. Over the long run, the teaching of the consequence of ideas is over, and at last I am disposed to admit the appeal of truth when it is mixed with death. Which gives me from now on the right to choose what I will become.”
One of the things that Lalonde has become is advanced in years. When his grandson wins three games of Ping‑Pong in a row, he exclaims, “Grand-papa, you lost on purpose!” When Lalonde says that’s absolutely not the case, his grandson replies, “So you’re getting old.” To which Lalonde admits, “Absolutely right.”
While autumnal in tone, this diary does not betray the relentless ticking of the clock. As Lalonde observes, “The confinement that COVID‑19 imposes on us does not change much in my day-to-day as a writer.” Indeed, there is a calm that emanates from his discovery of the new surroundings he has adopted.
For years, Serge Bouchard was a media phenomenon in Quebec. An anthropologist by training, he was a regular on Radio-Canada, where he presented short, polished essays on what one might call the archeology of everyday life. Stuart McLean used to do something similar, as did Margaret Visser, whose conversations with Peter Gzowski became the books Much Depends on Dinner and The Rituals of Dinner.
Before doing work with First Nations, Bouchard completed his doctoral thesis on long-distance truck drivers. Not surprisingly, then, the topics of his radio talks ranged from lesser-known hockey players to the Montreal bus transfers that he collected as a boy — bits of ephemera that tell of a long-lost network of routes, from before the construction of the Métro. Un café avec Marie assembles some seventy pieces written for radio, though revised slightly for publication (“retouchés” is what the publisher says, and I’d wager the retouching was minor).
Bouchard displays both simplicity of style and easy erudition as he writes about things as ordinary as the crushing boredom of driving down Route 20, between Montreal and Quebec City, and as abstract as uncertainty: “Doubt is inherent in thought. It is our intellectual weapon to deal with complexity.” His references range from Lao Tzu and Montaigne to Pascal and Vico, but he most frequently quotes the French philosopher Vladimir Jankélévitch, a master of sardonic insights: “Health is a precarious state that foresees nothing good.”
“In my life as an anthropologist,” Bouchard writes, “I have travelled across several cultural galaxies. Each one had its lexicons, its tones, its turns of phrase, a particular way of communicating and expressing itself; in other words, each one had its language.” He found one of those languages among the Innu of northeastern Quebec and Labrador. There, a source once told Bouchard that he had difficulty understanding his own father because hunting and the land had impregnated the older man’s speech in ways the son could not grasp. That’s not entirely unlike what Bouchard observes with long-distance truckers: “They spoke a French that was derived from the old country of orality, the old French of storytellers, those inventors of language, those who pushed the limits of the semantic fields . . . . They pay little attention to the prescriptions of grammar or the dictatorship of the dictionary. Rather, oral communication seeks efficiency within a craft. That is what a complex society is made of.”
The shadow that hangs over Bouchard, and over this book, is the death of his second wife, Marie. His first wife, Ginette, died twenty-two years earlier, and they had paddled together to break the news of her illness to their son, then living alone on an isolated lake. Marie had urged Bouchard to write about Ginette’s painful struggle with cancer; two decades later, he embarked on another difficult tribute, helplessly accompanying Marie in her final decline. And while the account of her death comes at the end of Un café avec Marie, the sense of mortality and the need to seize the pleasures of the moment, like the ritual of a daily morning coffee with a loved one, mark the entire volume.
In a series of interwoven and intimate revelations, Bouchard writes about adoption among Indigenous people — how Crowfoot adopted Poundmaker in 1873, for example — and how he and Marie adopted their daughter, Lou, in China. His work both with Innu communities and with truck drivers surfaces along with his provocative ideas about freedom, which he sees being eroded by convenience and facility. And though modern life has eliminated many natural challenges and obstacles, it has introduced artificial ones, like skydiving and extreme sports. And death, of course, remains.
Two men in their seventies — both prolific writers dealing with loss, both using the written word to come to terms with what has been taken from them. Un café avec Marie, especially, is a moving and poignant tribute. The day after I received my copy, I heard that its author had died. The notice in Le Devoir asked for donations to Femmes autochtones du Québec or to the renal replacement centre at the Hôpital du Sacré-Coeur — which suggested that he died from kidney failure. But this last book of his, written with boundless curiosity and affection, provides much clearer evidence that Serge Bouchard died of a broken heart.