Wow – Canada!

Canada through the eyes of world literature

Archive for the tag “Accents”

Canadian French, Stranded in the Barbaric Anglophone Sea


J.-K. Huysmans, Against Nature (1884, trans. Robert Baldick)

Huysmans’ À Rebours is perhaps best known to English readers as the mysterious “yellow book” that has such an impact on the title character in Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray. It concerns des Esseintes, the last surviving member of an aristocratic family who, having devoted himself to society and debauchery in his youth, withdraws to a small house outside Paris. There isn’t much of a plot; for long stretches, the book devolves into little more than a catalogue of des Esseintes’ tastes in literature, art and interior decorating, the latter being particularly trying for anyone not fascinated by curtains and wallpaper.

In writing, he prefers the ornate style of “Silver Latin” and obscure religious authors, which are usually dismissed as decadent, and Canada is mentioned in the context of des Esseintes’ literary taste:

The very opposite had been the case with the ecclesiastical writers; confined to their own territory, imprisoned within an identical, traditional range of reading, knowing nothing of the literary evolution of more recent times and absolutely determined, if need be, to pluck their eyes out rather than recognize it, they necessarily employed an unaltered and unalterable language, like that eighteenth-century language which the descendants of the French settlers in Canada normally speak and write to this day, no variation in vocabulary or phraseology having ever been possible in their idiom, cut off as it is from the old country and surrounded on all sides by the English tongue.  (164-5)

The obscure, involuted style that results when a language is cut off from the possibility of development is at the heart of des Esseintes’ decadent aesthetic, and it’s interesting to see French Canada brought in here as an emblem of this form of isolation. And the image of Canadian French separated from the forward currents of French spoken in France and trapped on its own as an island amid the sea of anglophone North America echoes the structure of the novel itself, where des Esseintes isolates himself from society and spends his days in a strange stasis that he cannot escape.

Huysmans and Proust

This paragraph in Huysmans’ novel recalls one of our earliest posts, which dealt with a reference to Canada in Proust. In that passage, from Time Regained, Proust claims that French men at the end of the First World War would pay for sex with French-Canadian soldiers because their accents recalled an older form of French speech. So, apparently, Huysmans and Proust both thought of French Canada in an analogous way, as a place where an older form of the French language had been preserved unchanged. (I can’t personally attest to the accuracy or inaccuracy of this impression.)

Would Proust have known that his reference to the French spoken in Canada echoed one made by Huysmans? Was he even familiar with Huysmans’ book? Jean-Yves Tadié, in Marcel Proust: A Life, raises the question, “Had Proust read À Rebours?” ( p. 158),  but leaves it frustratingly unanswered. Proust, according to Tadié, did refer to des Esseintes once, in a letter, so clearly he was at least aware of the character — but the character’s name, in Parisian society, was used as a byword for decadence, so it’s possible Proust was referring to des Esseintes as a “type” without having actually read the book.

Besides their shared view of Canada, there is another significant connection between Huysmans and Proust: the French aristocrat Robert de Montesquiou served as the model for both des Esseintes and for the Baron de Charlus in In Search of Lost Time. Of course there are tremendous differences as well, scale being only the most obvious. But something of the reflectiveness and interiority of Huysmans’ essentially plotless novel is also present in Proust’s masterwork.


Easterbrook and King Both Speak Canadian!


Gregg Easterbrook, “Tuesday Morning Quarterback” (Jan. 22, 2014)

The Super Bowl is almost here, which means that soon I’ll no longer have the help of football writers to pad out these columns – so I might as well take advantage of them while I can. Gregg Easterbrook seems to have a thing for Canada – he can’t stop mentioning us – and here he goes again, in his TMQ column following the conference championship games:

Denver’s other touchdown came on a really pretty goal line zed-in to Demaryius Thomas – the zed-in is the Canadian version of a z-in.

Well, that’s interesting. Based on a Google search, it seems this play (see the diagram at the top) is commonly referred to as a “z-in” not a “zed-in” (under the name “22 Z In”, it was a staple of Bill Walsh’s West Coast offence when he was in San Francisco). So why does Easterbrook go out of his way to type it out as a “zed-in”?

That’s how we would pronounce “z-in” in Canada, of course, as opposed to “zee-in,” which one would think would be the standard U.S. pronunciation. Is Easterbrook trying to make his Canadian readers feel at home? That seems unlikely, given his history of glacier references. He is originally from Buffalo, which is close to the Canadian border – perhaps, through some sort of linguistic influence by proximity, the play is pronounced “zed-in” up there rather than the more typically American “zee-in”?

Or is Easterbrook just seizing the opportunity to take another dig at one of his favourite targets – Canadians?

Peter King, “Monday Morning Quarterback” (Jan. 21, 2014)

By an odd coincidence, Peter King’s MMQB column touches on related subject matter. While in Denver covering the AFC championship, he attended a hockey game (hockey – this column just oozes Canada!) between the Devils and the Avalanche:

b. Of course, one of the highlights during the game was noticing the back of No. 24 for the Avalanche: CLICHE. A forward. Marc-Andre Cliche, from Quebec. So, brilliant me, I’m at the game with our Robert Klemko, and Cliche goes into the penalty box, and I say, “Cliché in the sin bin! How perfect is that?!”

c. But the dream soon died. The PA announcer, calling out the penalty, pronounced the last name “Cleesh.” Bummer.

That question mark/exclamation mark combo is exactly the way it appears in King’s column; apparently hockey is so exciting it makes him toss punctuation around like a drunk 13-year-old on Twitter.

As for the name, I thought “Cleesh” might just be the American PA announcer’s mispronunciation, but a quick Google search doesn’t turn up any instances with an accent on the “e” (though, curiously, “Andre” sometimes has an accent and sometimes doesn’t). Perhaps the family got tired of the jokes  and dropped the accent – the opposite of the famous case of Egbert Sousé.

I’m not sure these two references tell us anything new about perceptions of Canada, but they do offer further confirmation that American sportswriters have an idea that their neighbours to the North speak strangely (“aboot” etc.), and that this is an appropriate subject for jokes at our expense.

In a related note, the Montreal Canadiens are now putting accent marks on players’ names on the backs of their jerseys. If only Colorado would follow suit, Peter King would have one less thing to be confused about.

Freaks Belong in the CFL!

“Tebow headed north of the border?” ProFootballTalk (Dec. 22, 2012)

This video is a bit old now, but it contains so many central ideas about the CFL versus the NFL that it’s worth a look:

Peter King is rather like the Thomas Friedman of sports journalism: he plays the “reasonable man” who offers a wise and balanced point of view, but he’s nothing more than a mouthpiece for relatively conservative conventional wisdom. Between him and Florio, however, they cover quite a few clichés about Canada in a relatively short space of time. Here are a few highlights:

Go to Canada, hone your craft, win championships. (King)

This is the essence of King’s advice to Tebow – because obviously anyone who has played in the NFL will automatically become the best player in the CFL and be guaranteed to win multiple championships simply by showing up. Tebow’s unconventional mechanics and poor accuracy – King calls him a “sideshow” at one point – won’t be a problem up north because, as everyone knows, it’s an inferior league that welcomes players who are essentially circus freaks.

What are you talking aboot? (Florio)

Florio leads off with this classic (or should I say stale? a matter of perspective perhaps) American joke about Canadian pronunciation and gets a big laugh with it. I have to admit I still don’t get this one; is it an accent thing? I feel like I pronounce “about” properly (rhymes with “trout,” not “toot”).

He should exhaust all opportunities at the NFL level before he gives up. (Florio)

Playing in Canada is tantamount to giving up, since no one who had a chance to be even a third-stirnger for an NFL team would choose the CFL. There’s probably a fair bit of truth to this, at least in terms of how players perceive the NFL versus the CFL.

If it doesn’t work in Jacksonville, then you ship him to Canada. (Florio)

The CFL, apparently, is a gulag for failed NFL starters.

He’s not accurate enough. (King)

By this, King means Tebow isn’t accurate enough to succeed in the NFL; of course that won’t interfere with his ability to win multiple championships in the CFL, as King mentioned earlier.

How many games do they play up in Canada? Sixteen? Nineteen? Twelve? (King)

This casual exposure of gross ignorance is greeted with laughter from the other two talking heads; no one can be expected to know how many games they play in that crazy Canadian league! It’s remarkable that someone purporting to be a journalist can get away with remarks like this, and needless to say it’s only acceptable because he’s ignorant about Canadian football; no outlet would pay Peter King a nickel for his opinion if he didn’t know how many games were played in an NFL season, or by major league baseball.

Now having said that, I have to admit that I don’t know how many games they play in the CFL either. I’m sure it’s more than sixteen.

Pause for research….

A quick look at the 2012 schedule for the Toronto Argonauts shows they played 18 regular season games (Peter was close with 19) plus three playoff games. (They conveniently won the Grey Cup last year, so their schedule represents the full gamut.)

That took me all of a minute, Peter. Do some research! Don’t you have interns to find this stuff for you?

At the end, King goes into full Angry Schoolmarm mode, jabbing his finger and shaking his wattles in what used to be known as “High Dudgeon”. Everything, apparently, is the fault of the evil New York Jets:

I blame the New York Jets. The New York Jets totally hurt this kid…. The Jets are the ones who are to blame for this whole mess. (King)

OK, Peter. As long as we have someone to blame.

Adventures in a Parisian Male Brothel

TIme Regained by Marcel Proust

Marcel Proust, Time Regained (1927)

Clients could be heard enquiring of the patron whether he could introduce them to a footman, a choir-boy, a negro chauffeur. Every profession interested these old lunatics, every branch of the armed forces, every one of the allied nations. Some asked particularly for Canadians, influenced perhaps unconsciously by the charm of an accent so slight that one does not know whether it comes from the France of the past or from England. The Scots too, because of their kilts and because dreams of a landscape with lakes are often associated with these desires, were at a premium.  (p. 164)

This passage enumerates the preferences of clients at a gay brothel in Paris in 1916, when foreign servicemen were in France fighting the First World War. The reference to the “charm” of their accent makes it clear the narrator is referring specifically to French Canadians, but I think all of us, Anglophone and Francophone, can take pride in knowing our countrymen “were at a premium”. Does this mean the brothel charged extra for sex with French-Canadian soldiers? If so, what a compliment.

The connection of the French-Canadian accent to “the France of the past” also reminds me of the story of French Canadian soldiers in the Second World War. Apparently in some more remote French towns the people still spoke a form of French that was outdated and difficult for contemporary Parisians, but perfectly intelligible to French-Canadian soldiers, because in Quebec certain older forms of French had been preserved from the time when people immigrated.

I have no idea now where I picked up that story (high-school history class?), or even whether it’s true or not. And yet it has lodged in my mind.

But perhaps the most pressing question the Canadian asks about this scene is: is it true? Did French-Canadian soldiers in the First World War work as prostitutes in Parisian brothels, and did their accent make them desirable? Hard to say, but we’ll marshal what evidence is available.

In Marcel Proust: A Life, Jean-Yves Tadie describes the real-life brothel that provided the model for the one described in Time Regained (see pp. 670-674 in Tadie’s book). There is no specific reference to French-Canadians (and a scan of the index found no entries under Canada, French-Canadian or Quebec), but there is this suggestive sentence: “Proust always remained loyal to the principle that he could not describe something unless he had seen it” (p. 672). The proprieter of the brothel, Albert Le Cuziat, was one of what Tadie calls Proust’s “informants,” and he let Proust spy on his clients so that Proust could describe their behaviour in his novel. And preferences for certain nationalities of servicemen seems like just the sort of delicious detail Proust could have picked up from hanging around the brothel and then used in his book.

We could, if we were so inclined, extrapolate these circumstances, and Proust’s preference for basing his fiction on fact, into an assumption of truth here. But are we so inclined?

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