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BACK ROADS BILL: French Canadian artist and author connections

This story can be one of this summer’s Northern Ontario destination visits

Author Louis Hémon wrote French Canadian novel, Maria Chapdelaine. Posthumously it became a classic, there has been an ongoing infatuation of the novel. Few Quebec books have 150 different editions and have been translated to more than 20 languages, inspired three film adaptations and a play.

The story sold millions of copies at a time when book publishing and marketing had not yet developed. It has been described in French literary circles as “a kind of masterpiece, both in form and in terms of accuracy and truth of observation.”

Mattawa artist and raconteur, Clermont Duval, illustrated the modern version of the story, with more than 300 pen and ink sketches. These had a huge influence to the the storyboard of the 1983 movie version of the novel.

Both the novel’s author and the artist and story teller have roots in the same environment that influenced storyline and canvas. The latter became inspired by the lifestyle and happenstance portrayed in the novel and in his own life.

Classic novel

Maria Chapdelaine, is the quintessential prose, describing the rugged, rural lifestyle of early French-Canadian farmers. It created much controversy and has been one of the most widely read books written on French Canada. It is based on Hémon’s experiences as a hired hand in the Saguenay region. Clermont Duval grew up in a similar environment in rural Quebec.

Hémon was born in Brest, France, a member of a distinguished family. After his studies of law and oriental languages at the Sorbonne, adventure brought him to Canada, settling initially in Montreal. Hémon wrote Maria Chapdelaine during his time working at a farm in the Lac Saint-Jean region. He became immersed in what he saw and felt.

Clermont was born in the town of St. Éleuthère, in Kamouraska Quebec, rural farming country and had 14 siblings.

Four generations of woodsmen lived off the land. In the early sixties his family “followed the pines” to the Mattawa area but he broke the family mould. His passion for drawing developed at a very young age. So young, he said, “I don’t remember being without a pencil and paper.”

He has always created worlds and objects that he couldn’t access, always making them available in two dimensions.

On Aug. 25, 1973, Clermont averted tragedy. He was involved in a very serious boating accident in which his private boat blew up and he suffered burns to more than fifty per cent of his body. This accident could have taken away all hopes of becoming an artist.

“I promised myself that if I regained the use of my hands, I would spend the rest of my life as a full time artist," he said. His hands healed and he kept his promise. On Aug. 25 1994; the same date of his accident, saw the opening of the artist’s gallery.

His first love in art was writing and illustrating graphic novels.

In 1975, he published his first book titled La guerre à coup de poings. In 1978 he wrote and illustrated his sixth story –‘L’arme humaine.’ It was because of this the opportunity arose to write and portray as a graphic novel, the story of Maria Chapdelaine (Louis Hémon’s heroine). The original collection of Clermont’s drawings is in the Louis Hémon Museum in Péribonka, Quebec. How did he sketch all the characters’ clothing and all the chattels (stoves, cupboards etc…) in the cabin; a 1914 Eaton’s catalogue provided the models.

The storyline

Church and farm provide a physical and symbolic setting for the romance, as the seasons and feast days provide a “way of life” backdrop. Following the death of her mother and that of her lover François Paradis; Maria must then choose between two suitors: Lorenzo Surprenant, who tempts her with the riches of America, and Eutrope Gagnon, the boy next door. She unselfishly accepts Gagnon, thereby ensuring the survival of family and community and affirming the traditional values of rural French Canada.

The novel inspired Clermont because he could relate to the familiar lifestyle portrayed.

“There was so much religion in our lives, as is presented in the novel,” said Clermont. “Maria, as a woman of that time, said little and was influenced by her father and the parish priest. Our lives revolved around living off the land and being obedient as directed by the church and family. The little pioneer village in the novel was much like where my father was raised.” He also said, Hémon, as an outsider, was very astute and sensitive to the ethos of the province and identified the very underpinnings of the sovereignty movement. Maria muses, after her decision to stay with her third suitor “…Here all the things that we have brought with us, our beliefs, our language, our strengths and even our failings have become sacred and untouchable and will last forever…”

The most recent film was by Gilles Carle (1983), the choice of film’s actors and character protrayal were influenced by Clermont’s images. Clermont recommends W.H. Blake’s translation of the novel (1921) as the preferred English version.

In 1988, Clermont began his Children and Wildlife series which combines both writing and painting. In this medium, the artist truly discovered himself.

The work of The Admirable Violent was the first painting to be reproduced as a limited edition print. For this print, not only would each piece be numbered and signed, but each one would be fingerprinted and would include a storyline. He was the first artist to mark his reproductions with his fingerprints. Now, many artists in Canada and the U.S. have followed his lead.

Clermont’s work is internationally recognized, with galleries in the U.S., France and Germany showing many of his limited editions. The settings for many of Clermont’s landscapes are within the Ottawa and Mattawa River valleys, never far away from town and his camp on Lake Talon.

On July 8, 1913, Hémon was struck and killed by a train near Chapleau. Hémon was travelling west, to take part in the harvest and was in search of material for future books. His habit was to hop freight trains or walk along the railway right-of-way.

There remains some doubt about this tragic death. To some, Hémon’s death had the appearance of a suicide. He never saw the widespread publication of his landmark novel. Since his death, Maria Chapdelaine has been translated into more than 20 languages in 23 countries.

Louis Hémon remains an important writer who made Quebec known, first in France and then throughout the French-speaking world. As an author he profoundly influenced the imagination of Quebec. Clermont has released a French and English version of Maria Chapdelaine as a graphic novel.

Chapleau and Mattawa

You can visit the Louis Hémon marble memorial, erected by a literary society, many years after the author’s untimely death. It remains uncertain if he is buried there.

The historic marker can still be seen in the old Roman Catholic Cemetery at the corner of Grey and Birch Streets in Chapleau. Clermont has visited the memorial and previously attended the literary festival last commemorating the 100th anniversary of the author’s passing and the first publication of Maria Chapdelaine.

For the Louis Hémon museum click here. There is also a Ontario Heritage Trust In Centennial Park, opposite the CPR railway station. In 1937, Louis Hémon's sister visited Chapleau to attend the dedication of the Louis Hémon memorial at the station.

This summer you can visit the Clermont Duval art gallery in Mattawa on Main St. or online. The Natural Canadian Flag and the little red canoes are personal favourites and ask him to show you his “magic” paintings.)

We should appreciate his artwork; it speaks of the pluralistic nature of Canada found on the back roads.

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Bill Steer

About the Author: Bill Steer

Back Roads Bill Steer is an avid outdoorsman and is founder of the Canadian Ecology Centre
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