Bessette’s ‘Le libraire’ and the stifling culture of Quebec in the 60’s

Bessette became a pioneer in psychoanalytic literary criticism in Canada with ‘Une littérature en ébullition’. ‘Le libraire’ (1960) is an existential tale of a book store employee in a small Quebec town in the 1950s. The book deals with one of Bessette’s most common themes: the stifling culture of Quebec of that time.

Gérard Bessette
The book deals with one of Bessette’s most common themes: the stifling culture of Quebec of that time.

Le libraire (English title Not for Every Eye) is considered a great classic of Quebec literature and has often been compared to Albert Camus’ L’étranger, because of the narrative structure (both books are written in the first-person), philosophical-sociological implications and the enigmatic, aloof, unreliable narrator.

Le libraire is set in the 1950’s in St. Joachim, Quebec before The Quiet Revolution. St. Joachim is a Catholic conservative small town. The main character and narrator is Hervé Jodoin who loses his job as a teacher in a school in Montréal due to his lack of effort and interest. Bored and unemployed, Hervé is looking for an easier job, his only goal in life seems to be living with the least of complications. He attends an employment office where he finds an acquaintance, who happens to be a manager there. He helps Hervé to find a job in a bookstore located in St. Joachim.

Le libraire Gérard BessetteLife in St. Joachim is monotonous, Hervé spends his days working nonchalantly. Almost every night after work he drinks in a tavern and he literally has his “seat” there. Somedays, he writes some of his experiences and impressions in a diary, which is this book. By working calmly and sufficiently well, he gains the confidence of the owner, a man called Mr. Chicoine, who shows him a secret business he has in the bookstore, a room called “the capharnaüm,” filled with forbidden, “amoral” books intended to be sold to very private customers. Hervé sells one of these books to the wrong person, a high school student. This gets him in trouble.

The most important priest in town schedules an investigation of the bookstore, while people in town are pointing the place as a “dangerous and devilish.” Mr. Chicoine plans to remove all the books from the room, and he counts on Hervé for this purpose. However, Hervé finds a different solution, a very clever and ironic way to resolve the situation.

The way Gerard Bessette has written this story is brilliant. His style is so simple and minimalistic, but at the same time is funny and smart. His prose achieves capturing the social reality of the time, the culture, customs, beliefs, and taboos in rural Québec while displaying a satirical philosophical point of view related to absurdism and existentialism. In comparison with Albert Camus’ L’étranger, I personally preferred Le libraire.

It is wittier, funnier and more pragmatic in many ways. Le libraire takes philosophy neither too seriously nor too abstractly, the points of view of the author are “Machiavellian,” completely ironical and self-conscious. This novel could be one’s great big door to get into the very rich literature of Quebec, a province full of artistic talent often underappreciated in the rest of Canada.

Original Title: Le libraire
Gérard Bessette
Published Date:

Xphilo Liranzo
Journalist, freelance writer. Born in the Dominican Republic, lives in Toronto since 2016 and previously lived in Montréal for two years. Film analyst, novelist, author of two novels in process of editing. He writes reviews of movies, books, and music albums. He is also interested in psychology, sociology, neuroscience, history, sports, health, and well-being. He has some experience in filmmaking (directing and as a screenwriter). Passionate about languages, he is fluent in English, French, Spanish, Italian and Portuguese. He is also able to read and speak German (intermediate level) and Mandarin (Basic level). You can find most of his articles and reviews on his website: