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Athabasca University

Jacques Poulin

Jacques Poulin is often considered to be the most North American of Quebec's francophone writers. He is fluently bilingual, and his work appeals to anglophone Canadians and to Americans as much as to his Québécois readers. Born in St-Gédéon, Quebec, in 1937, he studied arts and psychology at the Université Laval, worked as a guidance counsellor in a collège, then spent several years as a commercial and government translator. It was after he published his successful second novel, Jimmy, in 1969 that he was able to devote himself full time to writing. Several of Poulin's novels have won awards in Canada and abroad (Le Vieux chagrin, for example, was awarded the Prix Québec–Paris in 1989, and the Prix France–Québec–Jean–Hamelin in 1991). He was granted the Prix Athanase–David in 1995, the Prix Molson des Arts du Canada in 2000, and the Prix Gilles–Corbeil in 2008, each one an award for his entire body of work. Most of his novels have been translated into English by Sheila Fischman.

His works often deal with history — both personal and political — as well as with the beauty of Quebec City and the St Lawrence. Poulin lived in Paris for fifteen years, but has returned to Quebec City. Indeed, he felt his absence from Quebec only brought his homeland into greater focus: «Un Québécois à Québec finit par ne plus voir le fleuve, le début des Laurentides, l'île d'Orléans, etc. À l'étranger, on retrouve les paysages qu'on porte en soi. [ ... ] Ça m'aiguise le regard.»

Poulin's works often explore language and communication, both the painful processes of writing and translation, and personal communication — the ache of solitude, the complexities of love and the dangerous lure of living with others in society. In Les grandes marées (Spring Tides), a translator lives virtually alone on an island in a fragile paradise, until his creative solitude is ended and his place disturbed by the arrival of a cast of other characters. For this novel, Poulin won the Governor General's Award for Fiction in French in 1978. Le vieux chagrin (Mr Blue) presents a main character who struggles to write a love story, inspired only by a mysterious girl who disrupts his writing, and a copy of The Arabian Nights. Words live in ambiguous relation to one another.

Many of his characters spend their lives in transit, whether between lands, languages and cultures, or on an inner voyage of self-discovery. Jimmy explores the frailty of childhood and childhood memories in the face of the adult world. Le Coeur de la baleine bleue (The Heart of the Blue Whale) deals with the changes wrought in a middle-aged man, recipient of a young girl's transplanted heart. Volkswagen Blues recounts the journey of a writer suffering from writer's block. In the tradition of Kerouac's road novels, "Jack" drives from the Gaspé down to San Francisco in search of his long–lost brother. Accompanied by a young Métis woman nicknamed "La Grande Sauterelle", he explores the North American landscape, re–tracing the history of the Amerindian culture as it was discovered — or invaded — and then exploited by Europeans, contrasting the North American expansionist vision of the continent with the traditions and discourses of the aboriginal cultures. It also touches on the ambiguous attraction of the United States for Québécois culture. Volkswagen Blues won the Prix Belgique–Canada in 1984, was nominated for the Governor General's Award for Fiction in that year, and was selected as a candidate in the CBC's 2005 edition of Canada Reads.

Poulin's simplicity of style, his use of fable and fantasy, and his lightness of tone belie an often painful subject matter, dealing as he does with destruction, the loss of innocence and the fragility of idyllic places. (M. Krajicek)

Updated February 12 2015 by Student & Academic Services

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