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Village de Baie-Saint-Paul en hiver (Charlevoix), Clarence Gagnon

Maison à Baie-Saint-Paul, 1924, Clarence Gagnon (La Galerie Walter Klinkhoff)

In 2005, Félix-Antoine Savard‘s 1937’s Menaud, maître-draveur[i] (Master of the River) was selected as one of Canada‘s ‘100 Most Important Books’ by The Literary Review of Canada. The popularity of Savard’s novel is increasing.

Unless otherwise indicated, the artwork featured in this post is used with permission from La Galerie Walter Klinkhoff.


Félix-Antoine Savard’s Menaud, maître-draveur and Louis Hémon’s Maria Chapdelaine, are intertwined as in a liturgical responsory, expressing legitimate nationalism, attachment to one’s root, and somewhat aggressive nationalism.

The Voice of Quebec: Maria Chapdelaine & Menaud

As Maria is trying to decide whether she will marry Eutrope Gagnon, a cultivateur (a farmer) or leave for the United States as Lorenzo Surprenant’s wife, she hears inner voices, one of which is the voice of Quebec. The voix du Québec directs Maria to live as her mother lived. Jack Warwick[ii] has defined this voice as “l’appel du Nord,” the call of the northThe voice Maria hears resembles that her father, Samuel Chapdelaine, also heard when he went north to “make land.” I should think it is also the voice Menaud is listening to and has always heard. Menaud is the main character in Savard’s Menaud, maître-draveur (1937).

In Maria Chapdelaine, the voice of Quebec is a mélopée (from the Greek melopoia), a recitative and monotone chant. Still, in Menaud, l’appel du Nord is a tearful lament and, at other times, a visceral and angry scream. Menaud loves the land he has inherited from his forefathers. He loves its smell, voice, wind in the willows, rough shape, and majestic Saguenay River.

So Menaud lives up the Saguenay River, as do Samuel Chapdelaine and Savard. Félix-Antoine Savard, an ordained priest, was born in Quebec City (1896), but he was raised in Chicoutimi and died (1982) in Charlevoix, where he had founded the parish of Clermont.

Photo credit: Wikipedia

Menaud’s Story: the Plot of the Novel

Menaud is, first and foremost, a draveur or river driver. He has driven wood down the river all his life, dancing atop the wood boxed in so it is transformed into somewhat fragile rafts. But Menaud is also an agriculteur, a voyageur, a coureur des bois and a hunter. A widower, he lives in his grey house with Marie, his daughter, and Joson, a son he will lose to the river but not the Saguenay. Joson, Menaud’s son, drowns in the Malbaie (formerly: Murray Bay).

Le Délié: the first Suitor

Menaud and his neighbours in Mainsal (the main sale means: dirty hand) are on the verge of losing access to their mountain, a mountain that has provided sustenance since the early days of New France. The mountain has been rented out to Englishmen by le Délié (the unattached). Lier is to bind, as in to link.

The same Délié has also made plans to marry Marie when winter comes. He tells Menaud that, as his father-in-law, he will be allowed to go to the mountain. Menaud is mourning his son and knows his daughter plans to marry le Délié. Having lost his son, he is about to lose his daughter. Finally, he and his people have lost their mountain, not so much to Englishmen as to le Délié’s greed and lack of respect for his roots. The mountain did not belong to anyone, but le Délié would be renting it, making money. We are witnessing faithlessness.

Alexis le Lucon: a second suitor

Fortunately, Alexis le Lucon, who tried to rescue Joson, finds a place in Marie’s heart. She chases away le Délié and tells Alexis le Lucon that it might be pleasant to live peacefully “here” (icitte):  « Il y a de la bonne terre, avait-elle dit; ce serait plaisant de vivre icitte tranquille ! »  (There is good land, she had said; it would be nice to live here quietly.)

« Je n’ai plus que toi » (I have no one left but you)

Then, as her father enters into a delirium bordering on dementia, Marie tells Alexis that she has no one left but him. « Je n’ai plus que toi[,] » (p. 211) and that, if he loves her (avoir de l’amitié [love as it was then called]), he will continue, as did Joson, as did Menaud. « Alors, si tu as de l’amitié  pour moi tu continueras comme Joson, comme mon père ! »  He opened his arms and made himself a refuge, she cried for a long time with her head leaning against his face: « Puis, dans le refuge des bras qu’il ouvrait, longtemps elle pleura contre son visage. » (p. 212)

Félix-Antoine Savard (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Félix-Antoine Savard: biographical notes[iii]

Félix-Antoine Savard, OC MSRC (August 31, 1896 – August 24, 1982) was a priest, a poet, a folklorist and, in 1945, a few years after the publication, in 1937, of Menaud, maître-draveur, he became Professor of Literature at l’Université Laval, in Quebec City, and served as Dean of his Faculty from 1950 to 1957. He was a member of the Order of Merit of Canada and the Royal Society of Canada.

Menaud, maître-draveur earned Savard a medal from the French Academy, l’Académie française, an honour he richly deserved given his exceptional command of the French language and proficiency as a writer. Menaud, maître-draveur changed the course of Savard’s life. From a parish priest, he was transformed into an academic and a very productive poet and novelist. See Wikipedia‘s entry on Félix-Antoine Savard. It has a list of his works and a list of his awards.

Savard’s Menaud, maître-draveur, a novel, is successfully embedded in Hémon’s poetical Maria Chapdelaine but further poeticized. Although Félix-Antoine Savard was born in Quebec City, his family moved to Chicoutimi, up the majestic Saguenay River near Lac Saint-Jean. That is Maria Chapdelaine’s country, filled with raftsmen, whom Savard often visited, lumberjacks, coureurs des bois, men like Maria’s François Paradis. He was also acquainted with men, cultivateurs, who tilled an inhospitable land tirelessly. In other words, Savard knew the people and the region that led Louis Hémon to write his eternal Maria Chapdelaine, published in 1914.

Moreover, Father Savard occupied various ecclesiastical positions in Charlevoix as a priest and founded a parish in Clermont. Savard calls Charlevoix his land, a metaphysical land. In 1989, it was designated a World Biosphere Reserve by UNESCO.[iv]  You may remember that Du Gua de Monts, under Tonnetuit and Gravé Du Pont, tried to establish a settlement at Tadoussac, now a town located at the confluence of the St Lawrence River and the Saguenay. Savard died in 1982 at Charlevoix. He was 85.

A Distinct Novel of the Land

Menaud, maître-draveur differs from Patrice Lacombe‘s La Terre paternelle and Pierre-Joseph-Olivier Chauveau‘s Charles Guérin.

  • First, it is both a novel and a poem. As a poem, it is a formulaic poème en prose. It contains a recurring refrain, and the refrain is borrowed from the novel’s source, Maria Chapdelaine:  « Nous sommes venus il y a trois cents ans et nous sommes restés. » (Menaud, p. 31)[v] (We came three hundred years ago and we stayed.)  Menaud has his daughter Marie read passages from Maria Chapdelaine to him, which comforts him. Louis Hémon wrote: « Au pays de Québec, rien n’a changé. Rien ne changera. » (p. 194) (In the land of Quebec, nothing has changed. Nothing will change.) Louis Hémon also wrote: « Ces gens sont d’une race qui ne sait pas mourir…  Nous sommes un témoignage. » (Maria Chapdelaine, p. 194):  “These people belong to a breed that does not know how to die…  We are a testimonial.”

I have translated the word “race” by “breed,” which is the word’s meaning in the current context.

  • Second, Menaud is un homme du Nord, a voyageur, a coureur des bois, and perhaps an explorer. He is, at any rate, bigger than life and, therefore, a mythic figure. He has lived dangerously and, by dint of doing so. However, he is now an older man, suddenly feeling young again, putting on his snowshoes and walking in the direction of the Royaume [kingdom] du Saguenay, as that region is often called. The snow is thick, so he gets tired and can’t continue. He takes off his snowshoes and sends Baron, the dog, to fetch help. Alexis finds him, but Menaud’s legs will no longer take him very far. So Menaud is not a typical farmer.
  • But there is a third dimension, a dimension I have introduced: nationalism, but nationalism with a slightly different twist. There is much nostalgia, but more importantly, there is a French Canadian, le Délié (the unattached), who has rented the mountain and will collect the rent. So, Menaud, maître-draveur features a new breed of men: the capitalist. Money is now the motive. Le Délié is, therefore, a “vendu” (a sold man). Was that mountain for him to rent out? We are entering a new world in which Menaud’s profound pride in his land and lineage will not be taken into account no more than ecological concerns. It is the world we live in.

Alexis’s last words in Savard’s novel are: “Ce n’est pas une folie [Menaud’s dementia or madness] comme une autre! Ça me dit, à moi, que c’est un avertissement.” (It is not just another madness. What it tells me, what I hear, is a warning.) (p. 231)

As for my post, I will close it by quoting the most nationalistic statement in Maria Chapdelaine and repeated in  Menaud, maître-draveurI will close, but I prefer not to comment except to say that estranged people are cutting down the rainforest and letting the planet melt. Not to mention that we can no longer afford our father’s house. It was too expensive.

Autour de nous des étrangers sont venus, qu’il nous plaît d’appeler des barbares ; ils ont pris presque tout le pouvoir ; ils ont acquis presque tout l’argent ; mais au pays de Québec rien n’a changé.  Rien ne changera. » Maria Chapdelaine. p. 194; Menaud, maître-draveur, p. 32 and elsewhere.[vi]  

(Around us, foreigners have come, whom we call barbarians; they have taken nearly all the power; they have acquired almost all the money: but in the land of Quebec, nothing has changed. Nothing will change.)


[i] Félix-Antoine Savard, Menaud maître-draveur, (Québec: Librairie Garneau, 1937).  The novel has been translated by Alan Sullivan as Boss/ Master of the River (Toronto, Ryerson Press, 1947).
[ii] Jack Warwick, L’Appel du Nord dans la littérature canadienne-française : essai (Montréal : Hurtubise/HMH, 1972).
[iii] Canadian literature.” Encyclopædia Britannica. Encyclopædia Britannica Online.
Encyclopædia Britannica Inc., 2014. Web. 14 Jan. 2014.            
[iv]As early as 1760, Scottish noblemen Malcolm Fraser and John Nairn hosted visitors at their manors. For much of its history, Charlevoix was home to a thriving summer colony of wealthy Americans, including President William Howard Taft.” (Wikipedia)
[v] All my quotations are from Félix-Antoine Savard, Menaud, maître-draveur (Montréal & Paris: Fides, 1973[1937]).                           
[vi] Louis Hémon, Maria Chapdelaine (Montréal, Bibliothèque québécoise et Fides, 1990 [1914]).
© Micheline Walker
14 June 2012