Active in many areas, Jacques Godbout has been a novelist, essayist, children's writer, journalist, poet and filmmaker. Born in 1933 in Montreal, he attended a Jesuit college, the Collège Brébeuf, then studied at the Université de Montréal where he wrote a dissertation on Rimbaud. He spent three years as a university instructor in Ethiopia teaching French — a sojourn which continues to influence his work and interests — before returning to Montreal, where he joined the National Film Board as a script–writer and director.
Godbout has always had his finger on the pulse of Quebec society, and has used various genres to trace its cultural preoccupations since the rise of the Quiet Revolution. In 1958 he co–founded the review Liberté, a critical forum for contemporary ideas, as well as such social organizations as the Mouvement laïque de la langue française (Quebec Secular Movement) (1962), and became the first president of the Union des écrivains québécois in 1977. He has written radio dramas for Radio Canada and French national radio, and has been an essayist and columnist for various literary journals and newspapers, including Lettres Françaises and Le Devoir. In all genres, his work is marked by his political commitment, lucidity, irony and humour.
Godbout's writing, whether poetry, fiction or prose, reflects the tensions of the day in Quebec culture. His early poetry from the 1950's and 60's expresses the difficulties and ironies of love in a nuclear age. His first novel, L'Aquarium (1962), is set in an unnamed Third–World nation on the verge of war, an apparent allegory of Quebec's own incipient Quiet Revolution. Le Couteau sur la table (1965) moves the action to North America, and introduces Godbout's longstanding interest in American influence on Quebec culture, and of Quebec's alienation from Western Canada, concluding symbolically with the Québécois narrator's rupture with his English–Canadian mistress. Salut Galarneau! (1967) is perhaps Godbout's most popular novel, and certainly the most humorous; it won the Governor General's Award for Fiction that year. The apparently naïve diary observations of François Galarneau, a Montreal hot–dog stand owner, sharply convey Godbout's ironic commentary on a Quebec apparently owned by American companies, and in which a native French speaker seems to have no place. Other themes typical of Godbout's work are the rôles of joual, of class and culture in Quebec literature and society (D'Amour, P.Q), the destruction of both natural habitat and Quebec culture by American capitalism (L'Isle au dragon) and the marginalization of the French language following the results of the 1980 referendum (Une Histoire américaine).
Although less well known than his novels, Godbout's essays and film documentaries explore these themes more fully. The essay collection Le Réformiste champions the role of the artist in a consumerist culture. Some of his films (Feu l'objectivité, Distorsions) closely examine the presentation of television news, media coverage in Quebec and First–world news coverage of Africa. Alias Will James highlights the tensions between people and a market–driven society, and the pervasive influence of the myth of the American dream in Quebec. Later documentaries (Le Sort de l'Amérique, Traître ou patriote) raise the question of historical relativism, investigating historical events, such as the Battle of the Plains of Abraham, from diverse social and personal perspectives.
Godbout's work has earned him, among other awards, the Prix Ludger–Duvernay (1973), the Prix Belgique–Canada (1978) and the Prix du Québec (Athanase–David) in 1985; he was named Chevalier of the National Order of Québec in 1998. He currently writes for the Quebec newsmagazine L'Actualité, and his 2006 novel, La Concierge du Panthéon, won the 2007 Prix Maurice–Genevoix, awarded by the Académie Française. (M. Krajicek)
Updated February 12 2015 by Student & Academic Services
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