The work of a prolific and much-celebrated francophone author and former Queen’s professor, Gérard Bessette, is the subject of a conference on campus next week, which has attracted academics from Quebec, Alberta and throughout Ontario.
“One of the questions that will come up at the symposium is whether he is a Quebec author or a Franco-Ontarian author, because he chose to live in Kingston,” says Annette Hayward, organizer of the day-long Oct. 6 conference, Relire Gérard Bessette au XXIe siècle. It takes place in room 202 Policy Studies at 9:15 am. The papers will be presented in French.
Professor Bessette taught at Queen’s from 1960 to 1979. He died in Kingston last year. During his career, he twice won a Governor-General’s award. He also received Quebec’s highest literary award for a body of work, the Prix Athanese-David.
“It is interesting to have such an important writer who was at Queen’s,” says Dr. Hayward, who teaches in the Department of French Studies.
He is best known for his 1960 novel Le Libraire, an existentialist tale of a bookstore employee in a small Quebec town in the 1950s, and the stifling atmosphere of church-dominated life at that time.
The book store has a secret room containing books banned by the Catholic Church and the employee gets into trouble for selling one to a theology student.
No Quebec publisher dared take on the novel in 1960, and Professor Bessette had to turn to France to find a publisher.
“Gérard Bessette was a very ironical writer. Everything is very tongue-in-cheek,” says Dr. Hayward.
In later years, as the popular novel proved its staying power at the expense of the profiles of some of his other books, he often referred to it wearily as L’Eternel Libraire. “Most survey courses of French Canadian literature throughout the world include Le Libraire because it symbolizes Quebec’s Quiet Revolution,” says Dr. Hayward, who worked with Professor Bessette for seven years.
“He was the only French-Canadian critic who systematically applied a scientific approach to literary criticism,” says Dr. Hayward. “He was very Freudian, very psychoanalytical in his approach… He had a very important role as a critic as well as a writer.”
A few of his novels were set on a campus based on Queen’s and some of the characters resembled his colleagues.
It is hoped that the conference will raise the profile of a talented Canadian author, and possibly convince publishers to reprint some his works, which are becoming harder to find, says Dr. Hayward.
Professor Bessette was a humorous and sociable man who “lived life to the full,” she says. “When he first came to Queen’s, they had parties that went from nine to nine,” she says. During the conference, there will also be an exhibition of Bessette Memorabilia in the W.D. Jordan Special Collections and Music Library in Douglas Library. It will include photos, different editions of his books, copies of original manuscripts and a portrait.