To this day, Montreal remains a city of diverse boroughs. Award-winning novelist, Monique LaRue, fondly describes the various zones of Montreal, conveying that “it is a pleasure to be able to calculate, to subdue, to rub shoulders with the mystery that was taking place in the neighborhoods, villages and alleys of Montreal.”
Montreal’s Plateau neighborhood flanks the north side of Mont Royal and McGill University. Originally inhabited by working class communities, the neighborhood has seen huge changes as a result of gentrification. Life in the now hip Plateau revolves around artsy bars and cafes in which the neighborhood’s alleyways have been “renaturalized” with murals and gardens. The Mile End is another culturally significant community, and is considered Montreal’s personal creative cauldron. Confined to a relatively small area, the Mile End is an art incubator of sorts, and remains home to many artists, writers, musicians and filmmakers.
While these two symbolic neighborhoods have been stereotypically occupied by Montreal’s young, burgeoning artists, this was not always the case. In a time where croissant-filled cafes and artist-filled ateliers were not the trademark characteristics of these two neighborhoods, a different mode of life prevailed. The streets saw a different type of struggle in which working-class families commanded the streets. And yet, even when these boroughs hosted other lifestyles, artists and writers drew inspiration from the city’s streets. Looking at the artistic and literary voices of Montreal’s past allows us to understand what the city has given to creators, and how these creators have used the city to highlight the identities of Montreal’s people and communities. Writers like Michel Tremblay and Mordecai Richler have used their Montreal experiences to portray the city as a special amalgam of voices.
Michel Tremblay was a novelist and playwright who grew up on Fabre street in the Plateau. Born in 1942, Tremblay lived in a time where the Plateau was home to many working-class families. Since Tremblay grew up during the Second World War, he was raised primarily by women because the men in his family and community were forced to join the troops overseas. Tremblay acquired fame through his brutally honest portrayal of the Montreal working class, which ultimately revolutionized Quebec theatre. Tremblay empowered the working class in multiple senses as he wrote in the non-formal street dialect called “joual”, and crafted beautifully-flawed characters rooted in the experiences of working class communities. His work was said to resonate beyond borders and languages, as evidenced by the numerous translations and performance interpretations of his writing in over twenty countries. This way, Tremblay assigned importance to Montreal’s non-glamorous roots in a way that linked people from such different walks of life.
Many have praised Tremblay for his deep insights into marginalized factions of society in Montreal and Quebec. Tremblay presented a unique version of Montreal to mainstream theatre, as he often rendered Quebec as a matriarchal society. In this vein, Tremblay’s work was heavily influenced by the women in his life, and he often infused a strong sense of femininity in his personal identity. Accordingly, many of Tremblay’s famous plays develop around homosexual and strong female characters who courageously defeat demons that have possessed them. In addition, Tremblay’s professionally-produced play, Les Belles-Soeurs (1965) revamped the old guard of Canadian theatre by inserting joual into mainstream art. Considered to have had a profound effect on Quebec language, culture and theatre, Les Belles-Soeurs challenged existing norms and stirred up controversy. Tremblay’s play dared to give agency to working class women who do working class things, and attacked the straight-edged, deeply religious Quebec society of the mid-20th century. Although Tremblay was a separatist who promoted Quebec nationalism, especially in the development of modern Montreal society, his most profound legacies lie elsewhere: Tremblay toppled societal barriers in his unique portrayal of non-traditional gender roles and in the importance that he employed to Quebec language and culture.
Mordecai Richler, an acclaimed novelist hailing from the historic Mile End district, grew up on St. Urbain street in the early 1950s. At this time, the district was home to a 25,000-strong Jewish working-class community. The Jewish neighborhood in which Richler was raised used Yiddish as the language of the street. “The Main,” more commonly known as St-Laurent Boulevard, was the unofficial demarcation line between Montreal’s Anglophones and Francophones, making the Jewish community a buffer-zone between the two.
Richler was considered both an icon and a critic of culture in Montreal, and provided an unapologetic perspective on being a Jewish Canadian. In Richler’s mind, his Jewishness was thoroughly entangled with his Canadian identity. He grew to be a controversial figure due to his strong stance against Quebec nationalism and separatism, yet simultaneously, was considered the first writer to truly immortalize his neighborhood, the Mile-End. To Richler, the Jewish community was the influential backdrop of his origin story and for the stories of his characters. In his novel, The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz (1959), Richler highlighted Jewish Montreal and used biting wit and vivid imagery to shed light on the experience of “the minority within a minority” – that being Montreal’s Jewish immigrants. Simply put, Duddy reveals the coming-of-age story of an ambitious Montreal teenager. Some critics have described the story as one that portrayed the experience of the “new North American everyman,” and provided a template for the type of rapscallion that Richler would use in other stories. The book capitalized on a theme which Richler frequently employed: Jewish life in the 1930s and 1940s in the Mile End. Richler described the neighborhood with detail and emotional context, chronicling the hardships individuals endured as belonging to a Jewish minority. While Richler was also criticized by Jewish groups for his unflattering portrayal of Montreal’s Jewish community, he remained unapologetic and continued to tap into the Montreal he knew and lived through.
In The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz, Richler eloquently illustrates the layers and textures of his neighborhood: “To a middle-class stranger, it is true, one street would have seemed as squalid as the next. On each corner a cigar store, a grocery, and a fruit man. Outside staircases everywhere. Winding ones, wooden ones, rusty and risky ones. Here a prized lot of grass splendidly barbered, there a spitefully weedy patch. An endless repetition of precious peeling balconies and waste lots making the occasional gap here and there.”
Both Tremblay and Richler drew inspiration from Montreal, and used their voices as writers to engage in the experiences of underrepresented groups. While Montreal has seen significant changes in these two neighborhoods since the conception of these famous works, we must pay homage to the city’s roots, and we must celebrate the creators that daringly drove Montreal into new waves of artistic expression.