My dinner with Gabrielle

Gabrielle Roy: A Passion for Writing

A review of Gabrielle Roy: A Passion For Writing by Andre Vanasse

Published on June 1, 2007

Gabrielle Roy: A Passion For Writing
Andre Vanasse

XYZ Publishing

In 1979 André Vanasse, then in his late thirties, was in charge of inviting Gabrielle Roy to a reception at the University of Saskatchewan in Saskatoon for a meeting of the Learned Societies. Roy had long been a heroine to the writer and teacher, who deeply admired her work. Roy was unable to attend the reception but sent a speech, which Vanasse nearly lost in misplaced luggage. He had a lithograph sent to her as a thank-you for her contribution, but it never reached her.

Later that year Vanasse went to Roy’s summer house in Petite-Rivière-Saint-François to apologize in person and to tell her that the loss of the lithograph would be made up. Roy tore a strip off her unexpected visitor, making it clear that she was annoyed that she had received neither any thanks from the Association, nor had the lithograph replaced. Vanasse, shaken, turned to go, when Roy asked him to stay longer. “I’m too upset,” she said. “I need company. To tell you the truth, I don’t feel too well.”

And the shared talk that evening was to remain with Vanasse all his life. Roy spoke candidly about her writing and her family, less candidly about her husband. The author was famed for her charm, and Vanasse was not immune. He cherished the evening of conversation, and felt obliged for many years to treat it as confidential. It wasn’t until François Ricard published his Gabrielle Roy: Une Vie in 1996 (published by McClelland & Stewart as Gabrielle Roy: A Life in 1999) that he felt at ease writing about his meeting with Roy.

In this biography Vanasse recounts that conversation, and provides a commentary on Roy’s life. Roy had an astounding success with The Tin Flute which was not repeated for many years. She had a vocation to write though, and struggled on, although the struggle eventually ruined her health. She was fêted in her public life and suffered distress and humiliation in her private life. She supported her family as best she could, but they wanted more. She and her husband Marcel Carbotte, a homosexual, had a stormy relationship filled with quarrels and reconciliation. Some of this, too, she shared with Vanasse.

Part of the charm of this Quest biography is the sense that Vanasse is sharing that evening with readers. He worries about whether he will ever get anything to eat or drink as the storyteller keeps on talking, but doesn’t wish to upset his hostess by mentioning such mundane matters. Luckily a neighbour brings a tourtière which Roy and Vanasse share, washed down by a bottle of wine.

On his way home at the end of the evening, Vanasse, increasingly struck by the nervous exhaustion and unhappiness of the woman he has just met, and thinking of the shining star of literature he knew her to be, stopped his car at the roadside and wept. By the end of the book readers feel that they too have been touched by a fascinating woman and writer. mRb

Margaret Goldik is a former editor of the Montreal Review of Books.



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