All of Jacques Poulin's novels are the same; all of them are different. This critical truism has long been applied to the works of this distinguished QuTbecois novelist and translator, for all of his novels are stories of detached, literate, wandering men, who travel across North America, meet their ideal feminine companion, while working through a socially-relevant problem. Anglophone readers may remember his Volkswagen Blues, which uses this formula to explore, among other things, the displacement of the First Nations in contemporary Quebec, the moral dilemmas of the history of French North America, and the ethics of sibling responsibility. Autumn Rounds, Sheila Fischman's recent translation of Poulin's 1993 novel La TournTe d'automne, continues to develop this pattern, with remarkable results.
Autumn Rounds is among Poulin's most introspective novels. It is the story of an aging man, known simply as "the Driver," who leaves his QuTbec city home several times each year to tour the north shore of the St. Lawrence in his bookmobile. The Driver is a solitary fellow, with few friends and almost no family. Afraid of the decrepitude which will come with old age, the Driver has resolved to asphyxiate himself at the end of his summer rounds, preferring to die in his beloved van, on his own terms.
Just before his trip begins, however, the Driver meets Marie, a French woman of his own age who manages an itinerant troupe of acrobats and musicians. The Driver is quietly smitten by Marie, and, happily, her group intends to spend the subsequent weeks touring the Driver's usual haunts. Their travels frequently coincide, and Marie often opts to leave her troupe's school bus and travel in the Driver's bookmobile. The relationship develops slowly, for Poulin's characters are reserved types who shy away from aggressive romance or unprompted self-revelation. Marie and the Driver talk about their favourite books, the beauty of Quebec's landscape, and, with great reticence, about the terrors of aging. On their travels they encounter a host of rural readers who eagerly accept the Driver's books¨and even the rejected, unpublished manuscripts that the Driver circulates as a service to Quebec's less successful writers. They also enjoy a couple of meetings with Jack, a kind of author's stand-in who makes rumbustious pronouncements on matters of literary taste and is overjoyed about Le Devoir's comment that "'In book after book [Ó] he gives us the same character with the same character traits.'" Jack also provides Poulin's readers with a brief list of their author's literary touchstones: Raymond Carver, Ernest Hemingway, John Fante, Gabrielle Roy, Boris Vian, Jack Kerouac, Richard Ford. Poulin's own style owes much to all of these writers, and as such is ideally suited to his emotive QuTbecois road tales.
At the beginning of their tour, Marie is involved in a relationship with Slim, her troupe's tightrope walker. One would expect some nasty scenes of vehement jealousy, but this isn't Poulin's style; Marie shifts her allegiances gradually, with a minimum of hand-wringing and without petty competition on the part of the men. It is tempting to criticize Poulin for leaving his readers with next to no idea of how Slim feels about the loss of his lover, but this is a simple consequence of the author's favoured way of treating love. Poulin seems to believe so wholeheartedly in the inevitability of passion that he refuses to bother with scenes of emotional posturing. Marie and the Driver appear to be a perfect, natural couple, and they slide into their roles slowly, with a minimum of fuss or authorial comment. Only the Driver's plans for suicide warrant discussion, and even that matter is approached calmly, as though he were contemplating something as mundane as the purchase of a trailer for his bookmobile.
Poulin's prose is extraordinarily light and genial, and this is what makes his fiction work so well. He creates a feeling of unforced intimacy that effaces the artifice of the narrative voice, allowing him to make use of symbolism that would otherwise feel pretentious or clumsy. His characters have a tendency to turn didactic, but they never become offensive, and their dialogue has a rough verve that keeps it free of the affected speechifying that too often creeps into all but the best novels of ideas.
Sheila Fischman, a Governor General's Award nominee for her work in translation, is consistently graceful here. Poulin's French is simple and unaffected, full of subtle modulations of tone, and Fischman has always been skilled at carrying these distinctions into fluid, readable English. Her long career has enabled her to translate almost any work of Francophone fiction into a wholly satisfying English novel; Autumn Rounds is no exception.
Strangely, comparisons between Autumn Rounds and other Poulin novels such as Volkswagen Blues are almost impossible. His talent as a writer is great enough that, no matter how often he recycles his favoured plot and characters, each book will always be unique. Superficially, Volkswagen Blues was a "bigger" book, packed with the kind of historical and nationalist critique that academics enthuse about. Autumn Rounds is a much subtler novel, one that appears to operate on an entirely personal level, but which nonetheless gently gathers a love of QuTbec's landscape, history, and culture into its understated autumnal romance. Those who have travelled with Poulin before will find Autumn Rounds to be a fresh tour of his old ground; those who are new to his work will find it enchanting. ˛