Ronald Després (Acadian poet, novelist, playwright, interpreter, journalist, and musician) was born on 7 November 1935 in Moncton, New Brunswick. In addition to his parents Patrice Després, a carpenter, and Régina Cormier, Després had ten siblings, seven sisters and three brothers. At a young age, he learned to play the piano and performed publically from 1941–55. He also attended St. Joseph College of Memramcook (1949–52) and Assomption College of Moncton (1952–53). He then graduated with honours (BA) from St. Anne College (Pointe-de-l’Église) in 1955 before proceeding to study music and philosophy at the University of Paris, where he obtained his Licentiate in Philosophy in 1956.
Unable to find work teaching philosophy in Moncton, Després became a journalist for the Acadian newspaper L’Évangéline from 1956 to 1957. While there, he launched a literary page that featured many of his own early works, including short fiction and poetry. Després then went to Ottawa to work as a translator of House of Commons debates (1957–62). His move to Ottawa was prompted in part by a disagreement of literary ideals in Acadie with the editor of L’Évangéline, Euclide Daigle (1922–2005). Daigle, father of Governor General Award-winner France Daigle, lamented the lack of traditional Acadian representation in Després’ literature, such as Acadian dialect or references to Acadian regions, and later openly criticized Després’ writing, calling it
un assemblage de mots qui sont accolés les uns aux autres de façon surprenante, groupés en lignes de façon surprenante, dont on ne peut saisir le sens, qui tentent d’exprimer des idées qu’on ne saisit pas” [an assembly of words that are put side by side in unexpected ways and grouped together in unexpected sequences which make no sense to us and whose ideas we cannot grasp]. (Daigle 5)
Interestingly, France Daigle is considered as avant-garde in her writing today as Després was during his career. After his time at the House of Commons, Després held the position of conference interpreter, ensuring accurate and seamless communication at international summits for the Canadian federal government. From 1971 to 1977, he was in charge of instituting new translation and interpretation systems for Parliament, as well as training more than thirty translators and interpreters. In 1977 he became the senior interpreter in Parliament, where he remained until his retirement almost twenty years later.
Després’ publishing career was short but intense. Seven of his pieces of short fiction were published in L’Évangéline between 1956 and 1962. His first collection of poetry, Silences à nourrir de sang, with its nightmarish and apocalyptic imagery, was published to critical acclaim in 1958, winning Québec’s Prix David. Four years later, Després published his only novel, Le Scalpel ininterrompu. Journal du docteur Jan von Fries (1962), which tells the story of Dr. von Fries as he executes his plan to vivisect the entire human race. Its satiric yet obscure nature garnered much interest. L’Évangéline published several of its reviews, including those of Jacques Keable and André Renaud. Keable labelled it “un roman satyrique [sic] mené contre la science” (Keable 6), while Renaud said the novel was “d’une originalité à nulle autre pareille” (Renaud 6). His novel was closely followed by his second collection of poetry, Les cloisons en vertige (1962), which plunged deeper into the chaotic universe established in Silences à nourrir de sang. A third collection of poetry, Le balcon des dieux inachevés, which delves even further into the realm of chaotic fantasy, appeared in 1968, while a selection of poems entitled Paysages en contrebande… À la frontière du songe. Choix de poèmes was published by Éditions d’Acadie in 1974. Despite such production and success, much of his work, including several novels, short fiction, poetry, and drama, remains incomplete and unpublished.
Critic Maurice Raymond has offered several possible influences on Després’ work, including early-twentieth-century dramatists Guillaume Apollinaire (1880–1918) and Garcia Lorca (1898–1936). He has also attributed the musicality in Després’ writing to his piano background and admiration for French composers Maurice Ravel (1875–1937) and Claude Debussy (1862–1918), both known for their work with “impressionistic music” at the turn of the twentieth-century, a style of composing based on emotion (Raymond 2003). This eclectic meeting of influences drove Després to explore the theme of fantasy in his writing and to produce images not associated with traditional Acadie, most notably in the scientific and apocalyptic setting of Le Scalpel ininterrompu. In that work, for example, Dr. von Fries states: “Avant une semaine, un homme vivant sera étendu sur ma table de vivisection. Et, malgré ses yeux qui m’imploreront, mon bistouri le déchiquettera sans pitié” [Before a week’s time, a live man would lie on my vivisection table. And in spite of his imploring eyes, my bistoury would shred him up without pity] (Després, Le Scalpel 10). This imagery is indeed a far cry from the traditionally romanticized Acadie; however, Raymond and others have argued that the doctor’s practice of vivisection is an allegory for the Acadian deportation.
Després’ short-lived career at L’Évangéline and the rift with Euclide Daigle had an impact on more than just his literary career. The future of Acadian literature itself was affected when Daigle’s critique of Després sparked a literary debate around which both sides took positions and garnered followers. The clash escalated into a divide between the modern and traditional literary figures in Acadie, with Després’ work representing a significant movement toward modernism. Perhaps fittingly, his first collection of poetry was published in the same year as Antonine Maillet’s more traditional Pointe-aux-Coques (1958), while his last was published in 1968 at the start of the modern Acadian Renaissance, a renaissance that produced a new wave of modern Acadian poets, including Herménégilde Chiasson and Guy Arsenault. Although Després’ writing career was rather brief, his greatest accomplishment was to have pushed the boundaries of Acadian literature from the traditional to a more daring realm that suited the tastes and intentions of a new generation of writers.
Matthew Cormier, Winter 2015
Université de Moncton
Bibliography of Primary Sources
Després, Ronald. À force de mystère: œuvre poétique, 1958–1974. Moncton: Les Éditions Perce-Neige, 2009.
---. “À l’assaut d’un mirage.” L’Évangéline [Moncton, NB] 7 Apr. 1962: 5.
---. Le balcon des dieux inachevés. Quebec: Éditions Garneau, 1968.
---. Les cloisons en vertige. Montreal: Beauchemin, 1962.
---. “Le coq du fermier crochu.” L’Évangéline [Moncton, NB] 21, 28 Apr. and 5 May 1962: 5.
---. “Le dernier mot.” L’Évangéline [Moncton, NB] 2 Feb. 1963: 5.
---. “Le fils du brouillard.” L’Évangéline [Moncton, NB] 27 Jan. 1962: 5.
---. “Le mystère du sol bémol.” L’Évangéline [Moncton, NB] 13 Jan. 1962: 5.
---. “Le Noёl aux poutines râpées.” L’Évangéline [Moncton, NB] 22 Dec. 1958: 9-10.
---. “Le petit berger perdu.” L’Évangéline [Moncton, NB] 22 Dec. 1958: 14-15.
---. “Le rictus de la mariée.” L’Évangéline [Moncton, NB] 31 Mar. 1962: 5.
---. Le scalpel ininterrompu. Journal du docteur Jan von Fries. Montreal: Éditions À la page, 1962. [Rpt. 2nd ed. Moncton: Les Éditions Perce-Neige, 2002.]
---. Silences à nourrir de sang. Montreal: Éditions d’Orphée, 1958.
Després, Ronald, and Laurent Lavoie. Paysages en contrebande... à la frontière du songe. Choix de poèmes (1956-1972). Moncton: Éditions d’Acadie, 1974.
Bibliography of Secondary Sources
Daigle, Euclide. “Une critique littéraire.” L’Évangéline [Moncton, NB] 14 Jan. 1963: 5.
Doyon-Gosselin, Benoit, and Simon Lachance-Paquet. “Du post-exotisme avant la lettre : Le Scalpel ininterrompu. Journal du docteur Jan von Fries de l’Acadien Ronald Després.” @nalyses. Revue de critique et de théorie littéraire 8.2 (2013): 99-120.
Keable, Jacques. “Un roman satyrique [sic] : ‘Le Scalpel ininterrompu.'” Rev. of Le Scalpel ininterrompu. Journal du docteur Jan von Fries, by Ronald Després. L’Évangéline [Moncton, NB] 27 Oct. 1962: 6.
Lonergan, David, ed. Paroles d’Acadie : Anthologie de la littérature acadienne (1958–2009). Sudbury: Prise de parole, 2010.
New, William H., ed. Encyclopedia of Literature in Canada. Toronto: U of Toronto P, 2002.
Raymond, Maurice. “Abréaction et littérature : le ‘cas’ de Ronald Després.” Port Acadie 20-21 (2012): 141-148.
---. "Mise en scène de la pulsion ou représentation de l’impossible dans l’œuvre en prose de Ronald Després." MA thesis. U de Moncton, 1999.
---. "Pour un exposé pragmatique du refoulement textuel: L’impossible et ses représentations chez l’écrivain acadien Ronald Després." Diss. U de Moncton, 2003.
Renaud, André. “Une oeuvre qui s’éloigne des thèmes souvent traités.” Rev. of Le Scalpel ininterrompu. Journal du docteur Jan von Fries, by Ronald Després. L’Évangéline [Moncton, NB] 27 Oct. 1962: 6.
Thibodeau, Serge Patrice, ed. Anthologie de la poésie acadienne. Moncton: Les Éditions Perce-Neige, 2009.