Quebec Studies

Choquette's Urban Fables: Questioning a Certain Modernity

Quebec Studies (2002), 34, (1), 47–57.

Abstract

47 Choquette's Urban Fables: Questioning a Certain Modernity Emile J. Talbot University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign While the fable has undergone various metamorphoses in its long history, it has retained the abiding characteristic of teaching truths about human behavior while purporting to tell stories about animals and plants, or some­ times about people seemingly unrelated to those who would constitute its readers. Without strict formal criteria—a number of fables, including all of Aesop's, are written in prose—the genre is defined by its rhetorical indirec­ tion. The great French fabulist, La Fontaine, was long read and admired in French Canada for his prudential morality and had in the nineteenth cen­ tury one notable imitator, Paul Stevens, who published a number of fables in newspapers and magazines before issuing them in volume form in 1857.1 Stevens's fables contain some clever pieces, but their close proximity in theme, moral, and technique to La Fontaine reveals them to be highly deriv­ ative, with some texts being little more than paraphrases of their source. It is generally believed that Stevens had no successors worth noting in Quebec. What I propose to argue here is that in the person of Robert Choquette, a master fabulist was active in Montreal in the 1930s, transforming the fable while at the same time revealing his own ambiguous relationship to the competing forces of tradition and modernity. By the mid-1930s, Choquette had already published a novel, La Pension Leblanc (1927), established himself as a poet with the publication of À travers les vents (1925), Metropolitan Museum (1931), and Poésies nouvelles (1933), and had been awarded both the Governor General's Prize and the Prix David. Beginning in 1934, Choquette embarked on what might be called the second phase of his career, as a writer for radio and, later, televi­ sion.2 Having previously authored several sketches for the radio and hav­ ing since 1930 hosted programs on French-Canadian poetry, Choquette developed a number of radio series: Le fabuliste La Fontaine à Montréal (CRCM, 1934), Le Curé de village (CKAC, 1935-38), Vacances d'artistes (CRCM, 1935), Dans ma tasse de thé (CBF, 1938), La Pension Velder (CBF, 1938-42), and Metropole (CBF, 1943-56).3 It is the first of these series, with a thoroughly urban setting that is of interest here, although I will initiate a brief discus­ sion of the second, which has a rural setting, later. Each of the fifteen sketches of Le fabuliste La Fontaine à Montréal bears the same title as a fable from La Fontaine whose text directly precedes it, thereby inviting its listeners/readers to expect that Choquette's brief dra­ matic sketch will illustrate or expand on La Fontaine's observations on the human behavior depicted.4 And, to a large extent, this expectation is met as Choquette, under the guise of a literary game that consists in applying La Fontaine to the thirties, targets the upper bourgeoisie of francophone Montreal, just as his French model frequently critiqued the mores of the royal court and the aristocracy. 5 An anonymous reviewer in 1935 called Québec Studies, Volume 34, Fall 2002/Winter 2003

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Talbot, Émile