11 May 2015

What's Going on with The Plouffe Family?

The Plouffe Family [Les Plouffe]
Roger Lemelin [trans. Mary Finch]
Toronto: McClelland & Stewart, 1950

The Plouffe Family is out of print. How can that be?

Lemelin's original, Les Plouffe, is one of the cornerstones in our literature. A bestseller upon publication, it was quickly adapted to radio and in 1953 inspired La famille Plouffe, Radio-Canada's very first television series. An English-language version featuring the very same actors began broadcasting the following year. There was also a miniseries and a feature film that cleaned up at the 1982 Genies.

My mother loved La famille Plouffe, but because she was drawn to wholesome, sentimental fare – The Sound of Music was her favourite film – I developed preconceived notions. These were cast aside when reading The Town Below, the translation of Lemelin's first novel. Both dark and funny, what it said about party politics, sexual morays and the influence of the Church in pre-Quiet Revolution Quebec surprised and delighted. The Plouffe Family didn't quite have the same effect, but only because I'd read the author's debut.

The Plouffe family – les Plouffe – live in St-Sauveur, the working class quarter that lies in the shadow of Quebec City's upper town. Six in number, they fill a flat. Théophile, the father, rests on his laurels as a champion of an otherwise forgotten cycling event. Mother Josephine cooks, bakes, cleans and dreams of her heroine Joan of Arc. The four Plouffe children – Cécile, Napoléon, Ovide and Guillaume – live at home, despite the fact that most are well into adulthood.

Nineteen-year-old Guillaume was a late surprise.

Though not immediately apparent, The Plouffe Family is quite a dark novel. The first section – there are four, plus Epilogue – concerns itself largely with middle son Ovide's pursuit of Rita Toulouse, a co-worker in the local boot factory. On their first date they watch young Guillaume defeat the local rings champion. The second has Ovide trying to win her heart by performing selections from Pagliacci in the Plouffe sitting room. Rita disappears during a scene change. She ends up being felt up by Guillaume in a secluded strawberry patch.

Ovide abandons the chase, but only temporarily. His is just one part of a family drama set during a time of rising turmoil. Théophile loses his job after refusing to put out banners during the 1939 royal visit. A half-hearted strike is overshadowed by war, Guillaume signs with the Cincinnati Reds, Napoléon falls for a tubercular servant girl and Cécile's love for her former boyfriend reaches a sudden, tragic conclusion. Riveting and just a bit titillating, it's easy to understand how it was that La famille Plouffe worked so well on television.

In 1975, a quarter century after it was first published, Mary Finch's translation was added to the New Canadian Library. Is this not a bit curious? After all, The Town Below had been welcomed into the series fourteen years earlier. No one can deny that The Plouffe Family had much greater public recognition.

In 1985, McClelland and Stewart printed a new edition that used a still from the film.

I remember that second NCL cover, and blame it for reinforcing my preconceptions. The Plouffe Family is no lighthearted romp. There is comedy, some verging on slapstick, but for the most part the humour is black. Darkness pervades and brightness falls, as captured in this scene from the film.

The New Canadian Library never made up for that 'eighties cover; The Plouffe Family was dropped in the great purge that took place with the launch of the ugly 1988 series redesign.

I had no idea until I started writing this piece.

The Plouffe Family is out of print. Again, how can that be?

Object: A nicely constructed hardcover in mustard coloured cloth. The first English-language edition, my copy was purchased in 1993 at Montreal's Westcott Books. Price: $4.95.

Access: Copies of Les Plouffe are easily obtained. First published in 1948 by Bélisle, Stanké is its current publisher.

Copies of the English-language translation may be found at Bibliothèques de Montréal, Bibliothèque et Archives nationals du Québec, Library and Archives Canada and the Library of Parliament; after that we're limited to our academic libraries. This is one of those uncommon instances in which the Toronto Public Library disappoints.

There's some good news in that the old New Canadian Library editions come cheap. Pay no more than five dollars. But forget them, these are the ones you'll want:
  • A Very Good signed copy of the first English-language edition is offered by Winnipeg's Greenfield Books. US$10.

  • A Very Good copy of the uncommon British first edition published in 1952 by Jonathan Cape. Listed by Victoria bookseller Dale Cournoyer at US$20, it's by far the most attractive in the novel's 67-year history.
Don't believe me about that 1952 Jonathan Cape edition? Well, here's an image, shamelessly lifted from Dale Cournoyer's Abebooks listing.

I'm betting it won't be available for long.

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