The bookstore is dead, or so we are told, displaced by Amazon, and hollowed out by the parasitic succubi of the coffeeshop and the home accessory. The bookstore is reborn, or so we are told, its managers displaced by passionate hipsters, curators of ideas in print, gatherers of writers, and hosts of events. Some bookstores die. Some are legendary. It is those that seem to survive: Shakespeare & Co, City Lights, and here in Montreal, Drawn & Quarterly and Argo. Sadly the legend did not save the store J. & O. Crémazie in Quebec City, but then for all the gathering of writers and the hosting of events, it left the selection of wares to the national poet, Octave Crémazie.
Established in 1833 by Jospeh Crémazie, Octave joined his brother in the business 1844. A voracious reader and full of admiration for the French romantics, Lamartine, Musset, and the early Hugo, he gained a reputation as an intellectual and scholar. In 1847, the store moved from the rue Sainte-Hélène to the rue de la Fabrique. In the same year Octave became a founder of the Institut canadien. A magazine, L’Ami de la religion et de la patrie, was started. Edited by Joseph, it is where Octave published his first poem.
Slowly the bookstore was becoming a centre of culture in Quebec City, a club for journalists, clerics and politicians, including the priest and historian, Henri-Raymond Casgrain, and the doctor and journalist, Joseph-Charles Taché, nephew of the Father of Confederation, Étienne-Paschal. Other magazines followed, Les Soirées canadiennes and Le Foyer canadien. Octave branched out, regularly publishing in the Quebec papers, gathering fame until in 1858 on the centenary of the Battle of Fort Carillion, modern Ticonderoga, New York, he recalled the Drapeau de Carillon, the flag borne by Montcalm but forgotten in France, and was hailed as “national poet.”
Abandonment by France did not imply revulsion though and it was preferable to the suggestion of Lord Durham that French Canadians were “a people without history and literature”. With the bookstore and his career as a poet flourishing, Octave made regular trips to Paris, enhancing the store’s wares and going to the source of French speaking culture. Paris, as is often the case, went to his head, and Octave, normally modest, even austere, became another man. Extravagant orders were placed, for books obviously, but also in shades of the coffeeshop and home accessory, cheeses, toys, religious knick-knacks, even umbrellas, much of which could neither be sold due to expense or even stored due to space.
Over the course of a decade Octave’s mania for acquisition brought ruin to his store and despair to his friends. Loans were taken out, first from banks, then from friends. Later the bills were forged. The situation became irrecoverable and when, in 1862, his friends and brothers gathered to save the poet, Octave, fled the city for France. Debts of $100,000 were mentioned but in the chaos it was impossible to specify the sums involved. Later, when the store was bankrupt, Judge Lewis Thomas Drummond, perhaps attempting poetry himself, remarked the notes were “as numerous as the waves of the Saint Lawrence breaking on the rue Saint-Pierre.”
Even then the disgrace of financial ruin and personal folly did not deter his friends and admirers. It was his alleged accomplices who were to blame. Efforts to have him pardoned came to naught; no charges had been brought against him personally and so what was there to pardon. More important to Casgrain was the rest of Le promenade de trois morts, the first part of which had only just been published.
In France, Crémazie did not find the happiness he expected. Sickness, poverty, solitude, and despair greeted him. Eventually he found a job with a shipping company, but he slid into poetic apathy, confining himself to letters home and a journal of the 1870 siege of Paris. Never destined for publication, these are considered, spontaneous, generous, and detailed. Amidst them though is his reply to Casgrain’s pleas: “the finest poems are those one dreams about but does not write”. Le promenade would never be finished.
Perhaps it was the paralysis of self-consciousness that turned him from poetry. For his biographer, Réjean Robidoux, Crémazie is “pre-eminently the literary symbol of French Canadian estrangement”. Out of abandonment he hoped to forge a national identity and re-connect Canada to France. France though was not much interested. Nor was it his home. That remained across the Atlantic, shaped not by France, but by Britain, and more importantly by the poets, writers, and politicians Crémazie had gathered and inspired at his bookstore.
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