Friday, July 24, 2009

'The Fat Woman Next Door is Pregnant'

by Michel Tremblay
[Original title: La grosse femme d'à côté est enceinte]
Translated from the French by Sheila Fischman
Fiction, 1978 (English translation, 1981)
Serpent's Tail, trade pb, 198 p.
1942, the first day of spring, and all the women on Fabre Street are pregnant. As three knitting sisters – Rose, Violette, and Mauve – cast their curious eyes over the antics of the swelling women and their loved ones, so Montreal’s most bizarre street comes to life.

Its inhabitants include Josaphat-the-Violin who lights up the moon beneath which ladies of the night Betty Bird and Mercedes Benz patrol. There’s courtesan Ti-Lou, owner of one hundred and eight pairs of shoes and the hearts of Canada’s most powerful. There’s Pit and Laura who eat every hour of the day. And there’s the fat woman, pregnant with the author…

Tender and memorable, both a love letter to his characters and an elegiac portrayal of the street where Michel Tremblay grew up, The Fat Woman Next Door is Pregnant is a beautifully crafted novel by one of Canada’s most beloved writers.
This is a fairly slim novel that centres on the lives of the residents of rue Fabre, in the Plateau Mont-Royal area of Montreal, and takes place during a single day. From the book flap (see above) we learn that the fat woman of the title is in fact the author’s mother when she was pregnant with him. It’s a semi-autobiographical tale and obviously a loving portrayal of his large, loud, extended family and the working class neighbourhood where he grew up. Even the grumpy, fickle, neighbourhood cat, Duplessis, was given a voice, which was quite amusing to read.
Suddenly, Duplessis woke up: ‘I’m hungry!’ He stretched, yawned and jumped up onto Marie-Sylvia’s lap. She began to make him purr by stroking his striped fur. Less to make his old mistress happy than to encourage her to feed him again, in spite of all he’d eaten a few hours earlier, Duplessis rubbed against Marie-Sylvia’s chest, which she took for a sign of affection. He even went so far as to stretch out on his back on the woman’s lap, offering his belly and his fleas to her expert caresses, caresses that verged on the violent and were not unpleasant in the least. (p. 49)
This is what Michel Tremblay had to say about the novel (for Canada Reads: The Book Club):
In [The Fat Woman Next Door is Pregnant] I send 22 characters (20 humans and 2 animals) on a journey that begins one May morning of 1942 in Montreal and finishes the same night. Each and every one of them learns something essential about his or her life, something that will change it forever.

I have to say that I had a hard time keeping all of those characters straight, especially the ones that only appeared briefly here and there. I enjoyed spending the day with these characters though, and it was interesting to read about the time period in that setting. This was my first encounter with the writing of Michel Tremblay but I understand that he wrote several other novels and plays set in the same section of Montreal, with many of the characters reappearing often. This book hasn’t made me want to rush out and read the rest of his “Chroniques du Plateau Mont-Royal” but I wouldn’t mind trying some of his other work.

The translation here seemed very good, but since the original is apparently written in “joual”, a working class dialect, I wonder if perhaps it has an added flavour that is missing in English. Still, a worthwhile read.

Video clips of the author from the CBC Archives.

First sentence: Rose, Violette and Mauve were knitting.

Buy this book at: Amazon.ca | Amazon.com | The Book Depository

My Rating: 3.5/5
(#38 for 2009, The Canadian Book Challenge 3, What's in a Name Challenge (Medical Condition), Lost in Translation Challenge)

Also reviewed at:
That's the Book!
If you've reviewed this title, let me know and I'll link to it here.

13 comments:

  1. I read this for last year's Canadian challenge and for Canada Reads, although I didn't review it. I'd rate it the same as you. I really thought from all the hype it was going to be better, but he certainly did capture the times well. I think it must be better in the original, as you said. Nice to see your thoughts on it.

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  2. After hearing about this a bunch during the Canada Reads debate, I really want to read it too!

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  3. Hi Nat :)

    I think I would like this book, I am making a note of it.

    As you know, for whatever reason a lot of books of French/French Canadian/Belgian version seem to be of few pages. All Amelie Nothomb for example are written under 200 pages.
    I wonder why.

    Have a nice coming week, hope your walk to the train station isn't to long.

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  4. I had this book out from the library but I had to return it unread. I will have to get around to trying it again soon.

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  5. What a great title! I hope this message goes through. I seem to be having a terrible time with your blog, lately. I keep getting an error message.

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  6. Sandra - Yes, I think this one would be nice to read in the original if possible. You're right though, he certainly did capture the times well.

    Monica - I kept meaning to try and follow the Canada Reads debate online but never got around to it. I hope you enjoy it if/when you have a chance to read it.

    Sylvie - I'd try to get a copy of it in the original if you can. And it does seem like there are quite a few contemporary French novels that are quite short. I have no idea why though either. :P

    It takes just under 10 minutes to walk from our door to the platform so it's not too bad, although it feels far when it's really hot and humid out there! I've been enjoying reading during my train commutes though. A good excuse to fit a little more reading into my day.

    Kailana - Even though I didn't completely love it, it was still pretty enjoyable to read.

    Nancy - Sorry that you've been having trouble accessing my blog lately. Is it just mine that gives you an error message? Hmm, I have no idea what the problem could be. I haven't had any problem with it myself but I wonder if anyone else hasn't been able to get through. Thanks for letting me know.

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  7. Nancy - I had a thought because I was just reading that Nymeth had some problems last month. Since I changed to my own domain name earlier this year, could you please confirm that you're accessing http://www.inspringitisthedawn.com.

    Blogger is supposed to redirect from my blogspot address (tanabata.blogspot.com) but apparently that wasn't working properly for a while recently. Thanks!

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  8. Great title, interesting book cover and just sounds quirky enough for me so I think I'll have to add this to my list :)

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  9. I'm not sure which is more catching--the title or the book cover! It sounds like it could be a really intriguing book, but 22 characters? I would definitely have a tough time keeping them all straight as well.

    I often wonder what's been lost in translation, especially as many of the Japanese books I've been reading are translated.

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  10. Yes, it's directing me to the right place. I'm not having any trouble, today. I wonder if it's possible that the reason I've had trouble has to do with the fact that you're right smack in the middle of the list on my reader. By the time I get down to the middle, I've got too many windows open and things can get flaky. The amount of graphics/ads, etc. could effect it, but I don't know. Today, I decided to check your blog first. No trouble!

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  11. I think I might have a hard time keeping track of 22 characters, but this sounds interesting. The title caught my eye.

    --Anna
    Diary of an Eccentric

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  12. I'm with the others that have been drawn in by the title, but I still haven't gotten to it. I have read a play by him though, "Forever Yours, Marie-Lou" which I really enjoyed.

    Your issue with keeping all the characters straight seems to be a common beef with the book.

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  13. Iliana - It is a great title, isn't it? And quirky. I hope you enjoy it if you get a chance to read it.

    Trish - The edition I have, with the cover above, is an older one that I got used a few years ago. I couldn't even find a picture of it online so had to take my own. It's certainly very colourful. :)

    I always wonder about the translation when I read books that have been translated. I wish I could read them all in the original but that's not a very realistic dream. LOL.

    Nancy - Well I'm glad you were able to visit easily this time. Let me know though if you have any problems again.

    Anna - What made it harder, for me anyway, was that many of the women had similar names! It is a pretty amusing title though.

    John - I'm kind of glad to hear that others have had a difficult time keeping all those characters straight too. I think it would be interesting to read one of his plays, or even better, see one of his plays performed.

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