When I lived in Montreal, an acquaintance of mine had a book of short stories published, Cities of Weather. I don’t believe I read all the stories, and unfortunately I don’t have my own copy of the book, though I should get one, but the ones I did read were good—again, not great, but good, and evocative of the city in a way that rang true to me. I remember the first story, the title story if I recall, was about a girl very much like myself, living in an apartment exactly like mine (the quintessential Montreal triplex) just two streets over from my own. Given, at the time I lived in what Wikipedia says has been described as “the coolest neighborhood in North America,” but it still tickles me to read in a real book about something so familiar. (Of course, much, much cooler is the passing reference in The Corrections to the Dunkin’ Donuts in my hometown where we used to go in the middle of the night just like Chip does.)
I have been musing about this collection this afternoon because we’re having quite the rainy day + flash flooding here in Chicago, and as the title implies the stories are largely about how dominated by weather Montreal is—and it truly is. But I think many places are like this, if in less extreme ways. One of the things I enjoy about some regional fiction is that it not only puts me in touch with the area culturally, but climatically as well. The Witches of Eastwick felt licked with salt spray throughout (as does Moby-Dick); John Irving’s more interior views of New England are bracing. The first story in Monique Proulx’s collection Les aurores montréales, “Gris et Blanc” (“Gray and White”), is about a young boy who has recently immigrated to the city from somewhere much warmer and believes gray is “the national color” because everything seems so bleak. Just a few paragraphs capture the autumn/winter weather aspect of the city perfectly for me:
C’est un endroit nordique et extrêmement civilisé…. Le mot “nordique” veut dire qu’il fait froid comme tu ne peux imaginer même si c’est seulement novembre. En ce moment, j’ai trois chandails de laine de Montréal sur le dos, et mamá se réchauffe devant la porte ouverte du four qui appartient au poêle qui est grand et merveilleux, lui aussi. Mais on s’habituera, c’est sûr, le chemin vers la richesse est un chemin froid….
Mais la chose de ce soir, la chose dont il faut que je te parle. Mamá nettoyait le réfrigérateur et par hasard elle s’est tournée vers la fenêtre. C’est elle qui l’a aperçue la première. Elle a poussé un cri qui m’a fait approcher tout de suite. Nous sommes restés tous les deux longtemps à regarder dehors en riant comme des êtres sans cervelle.
La beauté, Manu. La beauté blanche qui tombait à plein ciel, absolument blanche partout oú c’était gris.
(Translation mine; a quick check of Amazon reveals there is an English translation out of print.)
It is a northern and extremely civilized place…. The word “northern” means that it’s cold like you couldn’t imagine even if it’s only November. Right now I’m wearing three Montreal woolen sweaters, and mama is warming herself in front of the open door of the oven that belongs to the stove which is also large and wonderful. But we’ll get used to it, for sure, the road to riches is a cold road….
But the thing tonight, the thing I had to talk to you about. Mama was cleaning the refrigerator and by chance she turned toward the window. She’s the one who noticed it first. She let out a cry that made me come right away. We both stayed there a long time watching outside and laughing like idiots.
The beauty, Manu. The white beauty that came down from the sky, absolutely white everywhere it had been gray.
Of course, the really amazing thing about when it snows in Montreal is that it means it’s actually a warm day outside.