Sunday, November 27, 2005

Henri Tranquille, 1916-2005 - Death of a Bookselling Pioneer

This is a belated posting. The Montreal bookseller Henri Tranquille died on November 21, age 89. But Tranquille, widely known as Mr. Book or "Monsieur Livre" (the title of a 2005 biography), was more than a bookseller, he is considered one of Quebec's pioneers of intellectual freedom.

After managing various bookstores, Tranquille founded his own store in 1948 on Ste-Catherine Street where the Place des Arts concert hall is now located.

It became my father's first regular bookstore after he emigrated from Belgium.

Tranquille served as a guide to a generation of young people growing up in Quebec before the modernist "Révolution tranquille" (Quiet Revolution) of the 1960s, a generation that was not allowed to read books listed on the Index of Prohibited Books of the Vatican (the Index was abolished only in 1966). He helped them discover the modern, free-thinking, avant-garde, edgy, often anti-clerical or agnostic literature of the 19th and 20th century, a literature whose teaching was forbidden in school.

His Ste-Catherine Street bookstore became the hangout for what was the cultural and artisitic "bohème" of the period.

Tranquille was an active participant in the social and cultural debates that percolated in postwar Quebec underneath the conservative surface of the authoritarian and clerical Duplessis regime. In 1948, a group of artists including such giants as Jean-Paul Riopelle and Paul-Emile Borduas launched the famous anti-establishment manifesto Le Refus Global (Total Refusal) at Tranquille's bookstore. It was a virulent attack on the family, the Church, political authority, the past, pessimism and the dominant culture of submission, and the radical call for absolute individual freedom is regarded by historians as a seminal moment in Québécois intellectual history. Many of the signatories lost their teaching jobs and had to go into exile.

In 1950, the Tranquille bookstore was at the centre of another controversy, when it organized a celebration of the centenary of the death of French novelist Honoré de Balzac. Balzac was on the Index of the Catholic Church. For a practicing Catholic, reading his novels was a sin that meant possible damnation. Bricks were thrown through the windows of Tranquille's bookstore.

Many of the people who later became well-known figures of French-Canadian and Quebec literature got their first taste for great writing as well as encouragement at his store: internationally renowned playwright Michel Tremblay, Anne Hébert, Germaine Guèvremont, Hubert Aquin, Réjean Ducharme and many others.

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posted by Michel-Adrien at 12:34 pm


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