Sunday, February 24, 2013

Revivals #2: Testament of my Childhood

TESTAMENT OF MY CHILDHOOD.Testament of my Childhood / Robert de Roquebrune
Toronto: U of T Press, 1964.
160 p.

My previous book review, of Elizabeth Savage's The Last Night at the Ritz, talked a bit about its being part of Nancy Pearl's Book Lust Rediscoveries series. When I reviewed the first novel in that series, I remarked on how this celebrity librarian was making such an impact with her initiative. And then I also mentioned how I was inspired by her idea to start my own blog series about books that I think should be back in print! I stated then that:

I'm calling it "Revivals" -- the primary difference being, of course, that I am not bringing books back into print, simply back into awareness! I find that many book bloggers do read and discuss out of print books, not limiting ourselves to only what is current...with these particular titles I'm going to take a page out of Nancy Pearl's book and also write a mini essay about WHY I think these out-of-print books might merit a re-examination.

So here is my second "back into print" suggestion. I was going to stick with fiction for my "Revivals", but this memoir is poetic and literary and feels like a suitable suggestion, both because of its inherent interest and because I love it! (also because there is some question about how much of this memoir was heavily embroidered...) I came across it through random chance many years ago, and was immediately taken with it. Perhaps it caught my attention because I was a recent arrival in Quebec, and found stories of French Canada compelling -- they had so much more of a past than my own province did! Or perhaps my combined interest in history and in literature, both of which I was then studying, found a perfect reflection in this book.

It's a story of a childhood in a Quebec manor house at the turn of the last century, approximately 1890-1905. The author is gently nostalgic, clearly fascinated with his family history and the speed at which life had changed between his childhood and his writing of this book. The opening is quite beautiful, and sets the tone for the rest of the narrative. Here is an excerpt of some of the lines that touched me in the opening pages:

Life as we lived it in those days doesn't exist any more. The break between then and now has been so complete, that even having known that era gives me the sensation of having lived on another planet.

Canada was quite a different sort of country then, with different customs and habits. When from the depths of my memory I recall those scenes from my childhood, I feel as if I were turning the leaves of some ancient manuscript which has been left lying in a drawer for half a century. The ink has faded, and the words are sometimes hard to decipher; whole passages remain unintelligible. But suddenly an entire page is lit up with such clarity, that what was almost obliterated takes shape once again, if only for a moment.... 

I am aware that many men and women have completely lost their childhood. Or at best they have retained a colourless, shadowy recollection of that period, and hardly ever think of it. Such a surrender of childhood memories is a sure sign of indifference to oneself, but then lots of people are not really very interested in themselves. They easily forget their own pasts and are frankly bored with their own persons. Their lives are a day-to-day affair, and they let the past die out completely, as if there were nothing about it which made it worth holding on to, and yet the life of any individual may have its moments of poetry and passion. Childhood in particular is full of such moments.

And the story is a very foreign one: it feels very distant in time, as if it occurs much earlier than the turn of the century. The way of life he describes is so particular, with its class values and church going and family expectations, that is seems impossible that it could have been so recent in time. The author worked as an archivist and was fascinated by the past, and it shows, in his meticulous descriptions both of his own experience and of all the wider Quebec history that is woven into the tale.

Roquebrune describes a certain kind of life that these French "aristocrats" held to, and found hard to release when they were faced with the changes of the 20th century. This book is so powerful because of the gap that he acknowledges in the opening pages, that leap made from nearly a feudal past into the modern age.

Also, the writing is quite fine, poetic and carrying the pace of slower days. It brought home to me how distant we all are from our forebears, and how quickly life has changed in our very young country. But it also provided a sense of French Canada that seems important for non-Quebecers to read. It is a love song to a past that no longer exists, and that perhaps never really did exist, being seen through such a haze of sentiment. But it was still a beautiful read, capturing those tiny elements that make for such a realistic picture -- their favourite food made by the cook, Sophronie. The random appearance of a black man at their door in a snowstorm (and the racial identities taken for granted). The misapprehensions of a small child in the face of adult happenings. The cast of characters in a small village, including the country healers and eccentrics. And finally, the pain of losing their country home and having to move to Montreal.

Roquebrune draws a picture of a lifestyle that is long gone; however, he does so in a romantic way, creating a history that competes with the very best myth-making that our American neighbours do so well. There's not a lot of that in Canadian history. This story provides a level of reverie, or reminiscence, that colours the past with an aura of mystery that appeals to the imagination. It's a saga of childhood with all its attendant discovery, and causes a reader to reflect upon their own memories and the sensations of their own childhood. The combination of facts and history with Roquebrune's more personal, impressionistic recollections makes this a fascinating book.


  1. What a lovely idea for a series, I often read and review books in odd, old editions and hope that someone (anyone!) will recognise and buy them as a result, someday.

  2. What a marvelous initiative. I'm already a dedicated searcher-out and reader of old, out-of-print books, so you're preaching to choir in my case, but the more of us bringing attention to some of these worthy treasures, the better!
    And this title in particular sounds like something I'd like to read. With all of the recent discussion due to Canada Reads and Two Solitudes, perhaps we are in a receptive mood, here in "English" Canada, to cast an appreciative glance Quebec-wards?

  3. Alex - it's nice when finding something really unusual to be able to share it. Thank goodness for other book blogs & all the titles I've found in the past 7 yrs since starting to blog :)

    L&P - you certainly are...your whole blog is a nod toward this kind of thing, and is marvellous for finding new/old titles. I do read a fair bit that's set in Quebec, and yet this one is a little different as well.

  4. I agree - this needs to be back in print!

  5. teabird - have you read it? it feels as if it is taking place SO LONG AGO and yet it really isn't. Quite an effect.


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