Surrealism and Quebec Literature: History of a Cultural Revolution


374 pages
Contains Illustrations, Bibliography, Index
ISBN 0-8020-2336-3




Translated by Mark Czarnecki
Reviewed by Renate Usmiani

Renate Usmiani was Professor of English at Mount St. Vincent University in Halifax.


This exhaustive study of surrealism in Quebec, first published in French in 1977, is aptly subtitled “History of a Cultural Revolution.” Through painstaking detail and careful documentation, it describes the course of the surrealist movement in Quebec, arriving at the unassailable conclusion that “surrealism has had a profound influence in Quebec and that it even acquired connotations peculiar to Quebec” (p.26l).

The book begins with an exploration of the romantic, cubo-futurist, and dadaist precursors, and takes the reader up to the developments of the late ‘60s, clearly related to surrealism. The central, and most interesting, chapters are two and three: “From Painting to Poetry,” which shows how the literary movement grew out of cooperation between poets and those in the fine arts, and “Refus Global.” Chapter three is probably the most valuable to the English-speaking student of Quebec, since it deals with the cultural implications of Paul Emile Bourduas’ famous manifesto of 1948. As Pierre Vadeboncoeur said of Bourduas: “French Canada as we know it begins with him.” Bourassa presents Refus Global in the international context of surrealist revolt, discusses its political implications, and offers much little-known material about the articles and exhibit which were part of the manifesto at the time.

In general, the author emphasizes the international connections of Quebec surrealists, especially their links with André Breton; at the same time, he gives a clear account of the movement in Canada, which includes a discussion of individual artists (painters and poets), groups, journals, and publishing houses. Examples of art work precede the text, which also contains ample quotations from the poetry. Copious Author’s Notes and a Bibliography complete the book.

Mark Czarnecki has produced a faithful and eminently readable translation. The obvious weakness of the English version lies in the fact that translation simply cannot do full justice to a work of poetry — especially in the case of poetry based to such a large extent on puns, multiple levels of meaning, association of sound, etc. The translator, fully aware of the difficulty, has added a set of extraordinarily useful Translator’s Notes, in which cultural and linguistic explanations are given, and selected texts quoted in the original.

A valuable book for any serious student of Quebec culture, since it makes available a vast amount of material not accessible elsewhere — certainly not to an Anglophone reader.


Bourassa, Andre G., “Surrealism and Quebec Literature: History of a Cultural Revolution,” Canadian Book Review Annual Online, accessed July 14, 2024,