Jacques Ferron writes modern fairy tales. These stories, many of them very short, are set in Quebec and generally follow the conventions of the conte, commenting on society through a combination of the matter-of-fact and the fantastic. Ferron's writing spanned the period before and after the Quiet Revolution, and much of it is concerned with the transition from the rural society of the habitants to the modern world, yet they also offer wry and witty comment on la condition humaine in general. They are often told from the point of view of a village doctor - as Ferron himself was, as a young man in the Gaspésie - with his privileged view of the troubles of both the wealthy and the poor.
Selected Tales is translated by Betty Bednarski, who offers the only route to enjoying the stories for many readers: Ferron's writing is clearly too idiosyncratic for non-francophones, employing such gems as his own transliterations of English with words such as "cuiquelounche" (quick lunch). Happily, Bednarski, who is a wonderfully thoughtful translator, leaves these in the text, supplying the translation in a footnote, so that we can feel we are in on the joke). Even in English, though, the style is quirky and informal: "The Sirens" begins:
And then, one day, the blacksmith cum garage-man, who was beginning to have a bellyful of the Odyssey, said to Ulysses: "You've been back in Ithaca [that's Ithaca Corner, Ontario] all of fifteen years. Why not take a little trip down East? Montreal isn't that far...."
Ulysses is kindly allowed to go by Penelope: "[A]fter all, a weekend was not the Trojan War."
Many of the stories present a vignette of village life, while others, such as "The Bridge" describe the urbanisation of a rural population. This story is typical in its construction, being in the form of a memoir. It begins, with a twist on "once upon a time" - "This was some time ago." and tells how the narrator has been used to seeing an old woman carrying scrap metal across the bridge from Couteau Rouge to Montreal. The woman, her home and her journey are described, as is the birth of her third child. And then, the narrator observes, she simply disappears without explanation.
Not all stories are so brief. My favourite is "The Dead Cow in the Canyon", a rather lugubrious story of a young habitant who moves to the "Farwest" to farm like his father. In Calgary, distracted by meeting a putative cousin, he is persuaded into marrying the daughter of a Chief, before setting off to farm in a canyon with his new wife and a heifer. The heifer is as easily distracted as the young man has been, and pines for a mate, but while her rather feckless owners return to the city to find her one, she dies of thirst. Her subsequent story is poignant and whimsical and, I would say, fairly representative of Ferron in both style and theme. Ferron set up the Rhinoceros Party (so-called because politicans are "thick-skinned, slow-moving, dim-witted" creatures) to promote humour rather than violence as an agent of political change, and this shows in his distinctive and quirky writing. His work as a psychiatrist, too, informs his understanding of human nature, and the "lost" voice of the psychiatric patient can be heard transformed, in stories which are often concerned with the poor, the mad, or the fantastic. With his pleasure in the nuance of language, and his attention to the traditional elements of the conte, Ferron offers us something which seems simple and at times even naive, yet is imbued with rich veins of humour and social comment. Highly recommended.