Friday 13 November 2020

Reading on Planet Lockdown - Discovering Quebec with Louise Penny,

Shielding in lockdown has been like landing on a different planet. For me one consequence of exploring this new Planet Lockdown is the deepening and strengthening my lifelong habit (obsession with?) of reading and writing – all of which started when I was about seven. Reading has always been my escape from a dark and difficult world, furnishing me with an almost magical doorway into a sensate, fulfilling life. And now in recent months on Planet Lockdown this deep reading habit has allowed me to escape the sense of dark confinement and deprivation and find a (possibly eccentric) way of living to the full. 

And now I have found many different pathways on this planet. One of my reading pathways has involved   revisiting lifelong favourites. Then I got to thinking that I have possibly outgrown some old favourites; perhaps I even overrated these works in those early readings. But sometimes it happens that I find new layers of meaning in such older works which tell me something about the life we have to live now.

Another pathway here on the planet has been finding new works. I have relished a great pleasure in discovering new writers and stories which inspire me to explore new rivers and climb new mountains – to open up my confined world. So in these lockdown days new territories are opening up for me:  territories which would not have opened up for me, which I would not have foreseen, without this unique reading retreat which is Planet Lockdown

Some of the best of these has influenced me not just as a reader but more crucially as a writer.  One of these - a recent discovery - has been the work of the Canadian writer Louise Penny.

I can’t remember just how I first discovered this writer. However, having read one book, I found myself looking for others and, using an old habit – again started in childhood – of discovering a writer by reading a series of their novels. In this way I can cultivate and incorporate into my reading/writing map this writer’s approach to the storytelling task, to their worldview, to their creation of characters; I could learn from them their deep apprehension of climate and the natural world. I recognised these elements which combine uniquely in each writer and constitute what we call their style.

I feel first developed this series approach to reading generations ago, when I was doing my French and German A-levels. To back up my curriculum studies I hunted down the novels by Honoré de Balzac, the short stories of Guy de Maupassant and Heinrich Boll, and the plays of Goethe. (We did read whole books in those days in the original language. I believe things are different nowadays.)

Back to reading on Planet Lockdown – Louise Penny’s novels which might be loosely labelled murder mystery stories,  showcase her high literary skills and her clever storytelling skills.  The novels are bedded in the historical and cultural identity of French Canada. The history of the British colonisation of this original French province lies there in layers, underneath the contemporary stories. Penny’s storytelling is complex and sometimes surprising - threaded through with philosophical insight and an acute sense of the ‘other’. I learnt a lot in reading these novels – isn’t there a certain pleasure in absorbing information in the context of a story?

The settings for Penny’s novels is French-speaking urban and rural Québec; the central characters are urban and rural Québécois with a sprinkling of English speakers – called Anglos here - historically top dogs in the province but now at one level down: first nation Canadians such as the Cree nation also play a small part here.

As well as relishing the stories, in reading this succession of Penny’s novels I have learnt a great deal about the unique history of this part of the North American continent. And I have developed further my knowledge of the human dilemma – the politics of family, the forming and destruction of friendships, the nature of betrayal, the intertwining of love and hate.

I have been thinking that this is part of what we explore through reading – finding new pathways, new tracks, and ways to interpret what is essentially a very foreign environment to an English reader. This is so even if - like me – you flatter yourself that have a good sense of the world and its history.

Penny’s novels explore a series of widely ranging mysteries held together by the leading character, a Québécois policeman, Chief Inspector Armand Ganache, of the Sûreté de Quebec, his intellectual wife Reine Marie by his side. These two are at the centre of an extraordinary caucus of characters who live in a tiny village deep in the forests and mountains of rural Québec, some miles away from Montréal.

One great attraction for me of these novels is the secondary and tertiary characters who reappear in further novels.  This includes a complicated ancient poet called Ruth whose constant companion is a duck called Rosa. Another attraction is the way the writer renders for us the extremities of the distinctive seasons and the landscape of this part of Canada to the degree that, as well as forming a background for the narrative, they become part of the characterisation of the whole novel.

I have to say that these are no ordinary mystery novels. Apart from the complex and attractive character of Ganache himself, the stories of are bedded into a whole range of world issues played out against the linked histories of France and Québec. These involve murder, drug addiction, the joys, the warmth and this occasional toxic nature of family. We get to know the worlds of painting and fine art, the danger of enclosed monastic life, the dark nature of political and police corruption, And in each novel the exploration of good and evil and the dark and the light of characters and cultures is intelligent and satisfying. This writer assumes her readers are intelligent and not afraid of ideas.

Being a great Francophile the setting of one of my favourite novels in this series moves away from Québec and is set in Paris, where the historical French cultural identity of the Québécois is embedded in the narrative and is a key to the mystery at its core. As readers we get to walk the streets of Paris with Armand Ganache and his clever wife Reine Marie. I enjoy the way the Rodin Museum and the tale of the Burghers of Calais plays its part in the narrative.

The detective Armand Ganache is a deceptively clever man. He is a thinker:  a quiet, thoughtful soul who wields authority and leadership like a  magician's wand. We spend a lot of time inside his mind.  In this Paris novel as in the others, he  uses  literary and philosophical analogies with a free hand, always adding depth and significance to the  story,

One – it seems to me – very attractive and original aspect of all the novels is the attention they pay to the French influence on the daily life and of the food of the Quebec province. This is described  described with relish and serves to reflect the intimacy of the relationships and the authenticity of the stories as they unfold.

Looking at all this,  I am now thinking that it might make the novels sound fact-heavy and complicated. But not so! The passion informing the research and the literary skills of this writer makes each novel a compelling - even an easy - read.

 And there are surprises. Each novel is different to the others – these are not patently similar mystery stories. They are handcrafted novels which - apart from anything else - enhance our understanding of the human condition and cultural identity. They explore the dark and the light, the good and the evil embedded in the human drama. The dark side of some individuals and their motivation towards evil is deeply and sometimes shockingly present but not - as in some mystery novels – wanton and unjustified. 

So I suppose have to admit that the confinement and the long days of lockdown have been transformed into a gift  - for me, the time and the space and time to learn -  in this case about Québec, and  to become acquainted with the very special Armand Gamache in discovering  the novels of Louise Penny.

Happy reading!

Here Are Some of The Novels:

Still Life
A Fatal Grace / Dead Cold
The Cruellest Month
A Rule Against Murder
The Brutal Telling
Bury Your Dead
A Trick Of The Light

The Beautiful Mystery
How The Light Gets In
The Long Way Home
The Nature Of The Beast
A Great Reckoning
Glass Houses
Kingdom Of The Blind
A Better Man
All The Devils Are Here




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