It may be just me, but there seems to be a lot of interest in literature coming out of Quebec these days. Whatever the reason, there have been many recent titles worthy of translation in order to reach a wider audience amongst English readers. Too Much Light for Samuel Gaska by Étienne Beaulieu (2016, Quattro Books, and translated by Jonathan Kaplansky) is a fine example of a novella: the story is too involved to be restricted to a short story, but just large enough for a novella. This is one instance where more words do not equal a more pleasurable read; they would only obscure the imagery of the tortured existential deliberations of Samuel Laska, the only child of Polish immigrant parents living in Montreal.Samuel has honoured his father’s wish by becoming a composer, despite the elder Laska’s “knowing nothing of Chopin, whom he revered because he had to revere something and he probably never heard the name of Samuel Barber, the American composer.” Samuel tells us little of his childhood musical education. His anguish begins when agrees to write the score for a play his childhood crush Catherine is putting on. Soon after agreeing to do this, he and his girlfriend Pascale spend the summer on an island on the coast of New Brunswick, she to write a story, he to work on his composition for Catherine. While there, Pascale attempts suicide and Samuel manages to get her medical help in time to save her life. More anguish added to Samuel’s already full plate of woes. Eventually, Pascale leaves Samuel for another woman and then Samuel leaves them both by moving out west, working odd jobs to pay for the basics all the while dragging around the millstone of composing the promised score. Many times he wishes he was a bird (“Gaska” means goose in Polish) and could fly away from the place he is in:
“This ability to feel everything “musically” quickly became a prison….I want to shake myself like a goose emerging from the sea, to rid myself of this past, to be as light as air.”
It is while he is out west that a major change takes place: getting arrested for destroying a partially constructed church with a crane and serving “two years less a day” in Fort Calahan Prison. There, Samuel begins “to compose like never before, furiously, to get out of this score in which I was imprisoned.”
If I were to continue, this review will be as long as the story and I will be accused of spoiling a good read. It was a fascinating novella to read and if I didn’t always immediately understand Samuel’s depressive thoughts, persevering would eventually clarify the reasons why Samuel felt so embattled by his commitments, both to his dead father and to Catherine. Too Much Light for Samuel Gaska is an excellent novella that is captivating to read.
A writer, professor and publisher, Étienne Beaulieu runs Éditions Nota bene and teaches literature at the Cégep de Drummondville. In 2014 Trop de lumière pour Samuel Gaska (A Surfeit of Light), garnered the City of Montreal’s Prix Jacques-Cartier, the Grand Prix du livre de la Ville de Sherbrooke, the Prix Alfred-Desrochers and was a finalist for the Prix Chambéry (France).
Jonathan Kaplansky studied at Tufts University and Université de Paris III, completing a Master’s in French Language and Literature at McGill University and a Master’s in Translation at the University of Ottawa. After spending several years as a translator in Ottawa and Montreal, he turned to literary translation.