Wednesday, August 29, 2018

François Blais' Document One

"That's the beautiful thing about government grants: you don't need to produce the final product."
That's Tess, the (primary) narrator, explaining the essence of her scam in François Blais' novel Document 1. She and her roommate Jude want to take a trip from their hometown of Grand-Mère, Quebec, to Bird-in-Hand, Pennsylvania--they've picked it for the name--but have no money. So they decide to apply for a literary grant to write a novel and then use the money for their vacation.

Their first task is to rope in a front man, and conveniently there's a mopey author in town who's so desperately in love with Tess he agrees. Their grant application goes out under the default Microsoft Word name of Document 1.

And if the book gets published? Well, it will go out under the name of that mopey author in love with Tess. Hmm...

In case the names Tess and Jude weren't enough for you, the book begins with epigraphs from Thomas Hardy, Tess of the d'Urbervilles and Jude the Obscure. On the first page, Tess is quoting Lenny from Of Mice and Men. I figured the book wouldn't end well, and it doesn't, exactly, but not nearly as tragically as all that might indicate. But, well, they don't get to Bird-in-Hand.

The book is a hoot, really very funny. I assume there's some parody of the contemporary Quebec literary scene, which I know nothing about, but that doesn't matter. You still get the jokes. And Tess in particular is an engaging and even touching character.

I couldn't figure out if Blais got a grant to write this book, but it did win the City of Quebec prize for 2013. ($5000! Less than half the budget for Tess and Jude to go to Bird-in-Hand.) It comes in the middle of his writing career, the fifth of what seem to be nine novels so far, but is the first to be translated into English, just this year, by J. C. Sutcliffe for Toronto's Book*Hug. So somewhat homegrown for me. But I came across it at Michael Orthofer's blog Literary Saloon. A great resource for literature in translation.

And it has a shoutout to what I've long thought is the funniest town name in the known universe: St.-Louis-du-Ha! Ha! On my own road trip years ago, I first saw a sign pointing there.

Read for my Canadian reading challenge.


  1. This looks like a book that can save me from slipping into a reading slump. I've been in 'the classics' for weeks and need a 'good hoot!" The link to Literary Saloon is appreciates! Thanks. Funniest town in The Netherlands: Doodstil (Deathly Quiet) population: 102

    1. Doodstil is a good one! There are a number of other contenders listed in Document 1.

  2. I'd missed this one! Looks like a great,fun read.