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Bitter Bread

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Albert Laberge, Bitter Bread [Montreal; 1918]

I read a 1977 paperback edition of the English translation, Bitter Bread, of this 1918 Québécois novel which was, apparently, the first naturalist revolt against the pietistic, romantic, sentimental roman du terroir, or "novel of the soil," which the Church in Quebec promoted as a model for farming families, a sort of propaganda campaign against the inevitable urbanization which was happening in Quebec as everywhere else in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, and which had plenty of Protestant counterparts in the sentimental farming fiction of Anglophone North America. And for 1918, not just 1918 Quebec but 1918 anywhere, it is indeed bracingly unsentimental, squalidly unromantic, and gleefully impious.

The heroine (or rather the center figure in the tableau, as there are no heroes nor particularly a plot), called La Scouine as a small child by her classmates to mock her rank smell from wetting the bed so often, begins a bully and grows into a virago; she and her whole family are generally motivated by greed, anger, envy, cruelty, and spite, and they are not particularly unrepresentative of the farming community in which they eke out a living in the face of random violence, specifically English political terror, bad weather (to reverse which the opportunistic priests urge piety), and the cosmic indifference or bloody-mindedness of fate. Laberge dwells on bodily functions, on disability both mental and physical, on sex, and on the particularly vicious interpersonal relations of people who not only do not like each other but do not seem capable of liking anyone. Despite all of which, there are occasional lyrical passages in which the curious physical pleasures of certain farm tasks become an outlet for a kind of sensuousness that is otherwise nonexistent for these characters.

It's grim, almost gleefully so, and had to be privately printed, whereupon it was censured by the Church as a matter of course. It would be unendurable, probably, if it weren't quite short and if Laberge didn't have a poker-faced sense of humor; as it is, its combination of episodic structure and Canadian landscape made me think of it as a sort of cruelly distorted mirror image of L. M. Montgomery's Anne books.

March 29, 2017