“The Town Below”

Its author, Roger Lemelin, used a Quebec background, and created wide controversy.

By Mavis Gallant
Standard Staff Writer

Roger Lemelin, author of the newly-published Quebec novel, The Town Below, wrote his first full-length novel at 15. It had a flowery heroine who died interminably through its final pages and a hero who looked like Adonis and behaved like a heel. Mercifully it never got out of the scribbler stage, but Lemelin keeps it around for old time’s sake. As he explains now:

“I was in love at 15 with a girl some years older than myself. She would have nothing to do with me. So I wrote a book in which I killed her off. It seemed a suitable revenge. Besides, I was told she was a prostitute and was then an idealist.”

In a somewhat different way, The Town Below also grew out of Lemelin’s experience. It is set in St. Sauveur, a working-class suburb of Quebec City. Lemelin was born and grew up there, eldest of 10 children in a poor family. With understandable confusion, the publishers have noted on the jacket of The Town Below that St. Sauveur is a town in the Laurentians. There is a St. Sauveur in the Laurentians but it bears no relation to the teeming parish Lemelin describes so vividly.

Like most first novels, The Town Below may be partly autobiographical, though like most authors Lemelin denies it. Still there are some obvious parallels. Denis, the hero of the book, is an adolescent in St. Sauveur who wants to be a writer. Like Lemelin he goes to work early in his teens, and like Lemelin he is fired for correcting his employer’s grammar. With perhaps some wishful thinking on the part of the author, Denis wins a prize with his first novel.

That was a parallel Lemelin could not have foreseen but he certainly improved on his hero. The French edition of The Town Below, called Aux Pied de la Pente Douce, was published in 1944, when Lemelin was 25. It won him the Prix de la Langue Francaise from the French Academy, and Prix David from the province of Quebec. Another result was a Guggenheim Fellowship for two successive years (worth $5,000) to enable him to work on a second novel.

The English edition was received with phrases like “Hogarthian.” The New York Times commented on Lemelin’s “gift of characterization, his vigor of style, and his power to give sight and sound to a boisterously live world.” According to Time Magazine, “…he is steadfastly honest. Roger Lemelin may yet write novels that will make not only French Canada but the entire western world acknowledge him as an important writer.”

These reviews were surprising, for by Lemelin’s own admission The Town Below is full of mistakes and streaked with immaturity. If he had to do it over now, he says, he would make dozens of changes. Moreover, the translation lost all the rich argot which had given the French version so much character, and which, incidentally, had made it almost incomprehensible to English readers. One publisher had already rejected it as untranslatable.

Lemelin, who understands little English, worries about “the things which are supposed to be funny,” for humor is often completely lost in translation, particularly local references. The translator, Samuel Putnam, in a small preface, has tried to explain a few things peculiar to Quebec but unfortunately most of the explanation is so inaccurate that the reader knowing nothing of French Canada would be more confused than ever.

The Town Below has been compared in many reviews with Gabrielle Roy’s The Tin Flute because both novels deal with working class groups in Quebec. And because Lemelin is much younger than Roy it is generally assumed he followed a writing trend she established. Actually, his book was the first to appear and was widely-discussed among French-Canadians because of its anti-clerical tinge. It sold 20,000 copies in French.

Lemelin’s education as a writer was a tough one. As a child in slummy St. Sauveur, he recently wrote in his stumbling English, “I dreamed to become a writer but thought it was reserved to people of other countries.” His first job at 14 after leaving school was working on a farm at $5 a month. Then he became a day laborer on a construction gang. It seemed a slow way to get rich so at 16 he decided to take a business course, financing his was with “amateur” fights at a few dollars a match.

The commercial course and a few years of public school were the extent of his formal education. He got a clerical job and was fired after a few months. This was during the depression. Jobs were practically non-existent, and his brother had died, leaving him partially responsible for eight younger children. He was then 17. His description of that year is characteristic:

“I was fed up with humanity so I decided to become a champion ski-jumper.”

While practicing at Lac Beauport one day he had an accident which smashed his left leg and ankle and crippled him for about six years. He still walks with a limp. A gangrene infection developed which nearly killed him, and for more than a year it was not certain that he would live. As soon as he could walk on crutches, however, he was thrown out of the hospital where he was in a public ward, for organizing a hunger strike among the patients: “because of the water in the milk and the bad food.”

“Out of the hospital,” he says, “I saw no hope to walk.” Lacking money for an operation on his ankle, which had been eaten by gangrene, he lived at home, giving French and shorthand lessons at 50 cents each, and reading all the French classics he could lay hands on. It was around this time that he began to do serious writing.

“One day,” he recently wrote his publishers, “when going down the Pente Douce on my crutches (Pente Douce is the slope connecting St. Sauveur and Upper Quebec) I saw the parish of St. Sauveur as a whole and fell in a kind of fervor. In one minute I understood that I had just built my first book — to be published as Aux Pied de la Pente Douce three years later.”

He worked steadily, writing on the family kitchen table. Shortly after starting he met a doctor who told him his condition was curable, but that the operation would cost around $500. Without slackening work on the novel, he found a job with a lumber company as a bookkeeper, saving every cent of salary toward the operation.

When the manuscript was finished, Lemelin sent it to a friend in Montreal for criticism. After two months, his friend wrote to say the book had no value, and that he had lost Lemelin’s only copy. Gloomily, Lemelin went off to the hospital and decided, he says dramatically, to die. However, he did not die. The operation was successful.

Meanwhile, it developed that a book critic in Montreal had somehow read the lost manuscript. He was sufficiently excited about the young unknown writer to take a trip to Quebec City to meet him. Lemelin is especially pleased and quickly depressed. The visit cheered him considerably and he began working on a revision on the novel at once.

“I was 18 months in a plaster cast,” he says, “but went to my office just the same, writing the book from six to nice in the morning and from nine to midnight after work.”

It was published in June, 1944, the same day Lemelin began to walk without crutches.

“Nobody believes such a coincidence,” he comments peevishly, “but it is quite true.”

There was an immediate reaction in Quebec and particularly in his neighborhood. He was called, in print and in private, a traitor, a Communist, a trouble-maker, and a liar. His parish priest denounced him from the pulpit as Lemelin sat in the congregation. His mother complained that all her friends were gossiping.

“When I go to church bingoes now,” she said, “all the ladies stare.”

It was hardly surprising, for such bingo games had come in for heavy burlesque in the book. When Montreal actor Pierre Dagenais serialized The Town Below for radio there was a fresh wave of protest.

“But,” Lemelin remarks smugly, “the sale was a success.”

Meanwhile, he had become general manager of the lumber firm with which he had started as a bookkeeper. The Guggenheim Fellowship came his way one summer when he met the Negro author, Richard Wright, who was vacationing near Quebec. Wright does not read French, but he had hard enough about Lemelin to be impressed, and was interested in the outline of his second novel, already started. He sponsored Lemelin, who was able to stop working for two years and devote all his time to Les Plouffe, which is to be published in English and in French this year.

It is about a family called Plouffe, and deals generally with war and conscription. People who have read the manuscript report that it is very funny, and much better than The Town Below.

Lemelin is dark, handsome, and extremely reserved with strangers. His shyness occasionally makes him appear a trifle gauche, though his friends claim this is deceptive and that most of the time he knows exactly what he is about.

His wife, Valeda, he says, is “a very sweet girl from St. Sauveur,” who worked in a shoe factory before her marriage. He considers her a sound critic with good natural judgment. They had two boys, who 18 months and one born last winter. His surroundings are quite domestic and suburban, except for the room in which he works which contains nothing but books and a desk.

Lemelin has read the French authors pretty thoroughly, and has been strongly influenced by them. The Town Below shows, as he himself says, his youthful addiction to Balzac, Flaubert and Stendhal. However, he is currently more interested in contemporary American writers and is hopeful that “a school of Canadian writing will develop independent of the Old World.”

He works steadily when writing. Most of the material is thought out before he puts it on paper and he rarely makes a correction. Lemelin is unabashedly pleased at what had happened to him in the past few years, with respect to both his writing and his family.

Recently answering a query about himself he ended his biography with this:

“Will you please excuse the very bad English of this letter and one of the reasons of all my mistakes is that my wife has given birth this morning to a second child. As you see I create two fronts. I am 6’1” and 180 pounds. Satisfied?”

Montreal Standard, July 17 1948.