Culture & Conversation

Sexy, jazzy, struggling Montréal

Sainte_Catherine_looking_east_at_night

Blue Metropolis: Historical Montréal panel, May 3rd

Montreal history has just gotten a whole lot more interesting — sexier, even — thanks to Elaine Kalman Naves, Mark Lavorato, and Susan Doherty. Paul Kennedy, host of CBC Radio’s Ideas, interviewed them at the Blue Metropolis Festival on historical Montreal and the role the city plays in their work.

Anyone who says Canadian history is boring hasn’t read A Portrait of a Scandal, by Kalman Naves. A work of non-fiction, it reads like the best Louise Penny murder mystery. Set in the Montreal of the 1860s, Naves introduces Montreal as if it were her main character: “In summer it was a city of melons…. But winter was its true calling, its season par excellence. It was a city of snow, ice, and tinkling sleigh bells, built on the banks of a river with prodigious currents.” The rest of the book explores these “prodigious currents” as they surfaced in the abortion trial of Robert Notman, the younger brother of William Notman of photography fame.

“Sexy” is how Mark Lavorato, author of Serafim and Claire, described the Montreal of the 1920s. “People were letting loose after the Great War, the war that was supposed to end all wars,” and they did so with various combinations of drugs, booze, sex, gambling and jazz, much of it illegal. His novel documents this period with a street photographer’s eye as his main characters move through Montreal neighbourhoods: Mile End, the Red Light District and the Square Mile.

The Depression, following on the heels of the Gay Twenties, was definitely not sexy, and Susan Doherty makes no attempt to make it so in A Secret Music. This is Montreal seen from the vantage point of psych wards, sanatoriums and bread lines. It was a “difficult decade,” in her words, but also the decade that birthed a local jazz and swing scene that would nurture the musical talents of such jazz greats as Oscar Peterson and Maynard Ferguson.

When asked what part of Montreal most symbolized this era, Doherty replied, “the Marconi building in Griffintown, next to the Lowney Chocolate factory.” Radio was king in the 1930s – everyone was listening. It was the decade that saw the founding of the CBC, the first nationwide platform for expressing Canadian culture. At the Marconi building, the musicians who came to broadcast and record their music also found themselves tempted by the sweet aroma of Cherry Blossoms,  Lowney’s famous Maraschino cherry candy enrobed in sugary liquid and chocolate.We know about the Cherry Blossoms because Doherty took the time to dig deep into the archives.

“You read historical fiction because you want to be transported to another time,” was how one panellist put it. “We owe our readership not the truth, but to make it as authentic as possible.” Whether seeking the true or the authentic, whether writing fiction or non-fiction, what united these three authors was their appeal to the senses.

And maybe that is also why we read historical fiction and non-fiction written this way. It reminds us that we are alive, just as people in the past once were.

The Blue Metropolis Festival ended May 4th.

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Kathryn Harvey is a Quebec historian who works in community, particularly the Southwest. She remembers everything.


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