Roger Lemlin’s The Town Below comes recommended by another author whose work I recently read: Brian Busby. I selected it to read based on the vague recollection of the recommendation from his blog, however I forgot some of his comments from that same blog post. More on that later.
The Town Below mainly follows Denis Boucher and Jean Colin, two young men in the Duplessis era Quebec City. Set in the city’s “lower town” the novel depicts a vibrant and bustling working class community with its internal divisions, eccentricities, and cast of strange characters. The highlight of the book is certainly the glimpses of this community, from the disjointed Liberal Party meeting, to the frantic bingo game at the local church.
I complained in my review of my favourite whipping boy, The Alley Cat, that the events of the novel do not come together into anything unified. Neither do the events of The Town Below, but that suits this sort of social satire, with its comparative realism and depiction of life as a series of not-necessarily connected events.
While the depictions of the community were what I found the most enjoyable, I did find the central conflict of the novel frustrating. Denis and Jean comprise two thirds of a love triangle completed by Lise, a girl recently returned from a convent school. Though Jean makes an early good impression, Denis quickly takes the lead and retains it for the rest of the novel with ease. This grates since Denis is pretentious, annoying, and unsympathetic, whereas Jean is hard-working, well-meaning, and doomed. The novel recognizes Denis is full of himself, but the small moments of insight the narration offers the reader does not alleviate one’s annoyance at seeing an arrogant youth have his pretensions confirmed.
Late in the novel Denis, having decided he would like to be a great writer, has entered a writing contest. I wanted him to lose. I thought he would lost because it would take him down a peg and cause him to realize that he is not simply better than everyone else by virtue of having attended school and trying (but failing) to not be emotionally invested in women. When he won the writing contest I was audibly disappointed and nearly put down the book. However, the author is clearly having some fun at the expense of this character. Although the reader and author are aware of his pretensions, Denis is not.
As much as I disliked Denis, I rather liked his foil, Jean, which added to my frustration. Jean did not have the luxury of the kind of schooling Denis is flaunting, but perseveres anyway. To impress Lise and better himself, Jean borrows some of Denis’ school books and makes some headway. Early in the book he injures himself attempting to impress Lise by collecting plums, and walks with a limp for the rest of the story. This causes him to be subjected to abuse by his parents and others who accuse him of faking the injury for sympathy. I will not spoil his fate here, but I had an inclination of where his story was going once I read the title of the book’s second of two parts.
Despite having forgotten that Busby discusses the issue at length in his blog post I noticed early on that the translation was less than ideal. Although the book is too ambitious for its own good, packing itself with more characters than it can handle, it is more muddled by a weak English translation. The NCL version I read happens to be this translation. I won’t reiterate Busby’s comments on the problem, but if possible I recommend reading the book in French. The Town Below is deserving of a better English translation.
I’m pleased to note The Town Below is currently available through Dundurn’s Voyageur Classics series, however it remains the same bad English translation as the NCL version.
Next time, something more contemporary.