La Maison de la littérature is an understated surprise. It is a library but not a library, a gallery but not only a gallery, a performance space sometimes but not always. Quebec’s newest attraction is a cultural workshop, a literary hub, a library and a gallery all rolled into one. La Maison de la littérature is a boundary defying, gorgeous new cultural hotspot that is redefining what it means to promote and love literature and the eyes of the world are already upon it.
La Maison only opened in October last year and has already attracted over 85,000 visitors. Director Bernard Gilbert couldn’t be happier. “Since we were inventing a new concept, we didn’t want to set overly optimistic goals for attendance. And we have done so much better than we ever thought we would.”
I met Bernard on a recent visit to Quebec City and his pride in the new cultural space is evident. “When I was young, I wanted to be a famous writer,” he told me. He started writing poetry in his teens and is now a published poet and author of three novels. Along the way he discovered that he also had a talent as a cultural impresario. His accomplishments are many including managing Theatre Periscope, founding and managing the Carrefour international de théâtre festival and working for 10 years alongside renowned director Robert Lepage on his opera projects, such as the epic Metropolitan Opera New York production of Wagner’s Ring Cycle.
Gilbert long envisioned creating a home for Quebec literature. In 2004, the L’Institut Canadien de Québec asked him to prepare a report on the feasibility of creating a cultural centre dedicated to Quebec literature. L’Institut Canadien was founded in 1848 expressly to provide French Canadians with libraries and other educational undertakings and continues to this day to run Quebec City’s library system. It took a decade after Gilbert submitted his original report for funding to be raised and construction started, and he was tapped to be La Maison’s inaugural director.
Seeking a sight that would service both residents and tourists alike, La Maison took over the Wesley Temple, a historic Methodist church located in the heart of the old city. Since the mid-1940s, L’Institut Canadien had used it as a performing arts space as well as a library. But by the late 1990s, the performing arts venue had closed. Gilbert inherited a well known and loved site but one that required massive renovations. The Montreal-based firm Chevalier Morales Architects won the commission and designed a complex so beautiful that, even before it opened, they received the prestigious Award of Excellence from Canadian Architect.
Both soaring and intimate, modern and old, the new space houses a gallery, café, stage, recording studio, offices for the various writers in residence, and a functioning library. “We are inside an old temple,” said Gilbert. “But we never thought of calling it a temple. It was always a house. People talk about how the building, the space makes them feel welcomed, invited inside. That’s because we are a family.” And indeed when I visited, I felt so welcome that, were I to live in Quebec City, it would be my second home. Even on a rainy, grey day, La Maison was filled with light and its beautifully designed interiors beckoned me.
“All of our staff have deep roots in the literary community. All are passionate and love what they do,” explained Gilbert. And it shows. The whole of the 25,000 piece collection, which includes books, films, music, is available to borrow. Carefully curated selections are strategically placed on tables scatted throughout, enticing visitors to take time to browse on the comfy couches available in the reading room. Images from a Quebecois film play on a large screen overhead, while there is an imaginative literary exhibit based on found photos in the hall below, as well as a permanent exhibit celebrating famous Quebec writers.
The vision for La Maison is not centered on artifacts but rather on generating a living, breathing, and dynamic literary culture. “We decided not to focus on first editions – there are other collections that already do to that. Instead, we are concentrating on programming and community engagement,” said Gilbert. “We start with literature and then ask ourselves how do we create as many things as possible around it? Everything is new here so we have to experiment. We need to take risks.”
For Gilbert and his team this has resulted in an extraordinary range of programming including five residency programs, hip hop, haiku, and slam poetry competitions, open mike nights, reading clubs, and learn to write workshops. La Maison also provides onsite workspace for a group of comic book writers and designers, believing that they will amplify their creative output by sharing space rather than working in isolation. And if that isn’t enough, Gilbert’s mandate includes running Quebec City’s 10-day literary festival, Québec en toutes lettres, which takes place at the end of September every year. As the general and artistic director of both La Maison and the literary festival, he is able to fully integrate all aspects of his vision for literature as a creative and cultural driver for the city and the region.
News of this unique cultural hub has already travelled far and wide and delegations have come to visit from France, Belgium, and Switzerland. Researchers from the University of Lorraine in Metz are studying and writing about the progress of La Maison, with a special interest in the residency program that hosts around 15 writers and artists a year. All of this makes Gilbert very proud. “To be frank, the French are a little jealous. They don’t have anything like this,” he told me. “But so are folks in Montreal. So we must be doing something right!”
As for the future, Gilbert has big plans. Within the next three to five years, he would like to launch a translation program so that Quebec literature can travel into other markets and English Canadian works can be translated into French at home. “Right now the vast majority of books that are translated into French are done in France. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if a Canadian book, like Joseph Boyden’s Orenda would be translated here?” Gilbert believes that translation is a wonderful way to build cultural relationships. “In most cases translation is the only way to share literature from one culture to the other,” he explained. “And it allows writers writing in different languages to communicate with one another which I think is vital.”
Another goal is to cultivate relationships with other successful Canadian literary organizations, like Toronto’s International Festival of Authors and the Banff Centre’s Literary Arts Program in Alberta. He is also optimistic about getting CBC and Radio-Canada, who both promote English and French Canadian literature in their own markets, to do more linguistic cross promotion.
But for the time being, for today, he is content to let the world come to him. “We had a tough but very rewarding time during the last year. We accomplished a lot in such a short space of time,” Bernard recalls. “I love my job. I love my team. I still can’t get over how lucky we are. The concept, the building is unique. And since La Maison is part of the Quebec City public library network, it will be open for business for a long time.”
If you are visiting this summer, La Maison is offering free screenings of films by directors from Quebec as well tours of the building hosted in French and English. And lovers of literature can also explore Promenade des écrivains. These 2-hour walking tours feature significant sites for Quebec writers or writers who have written about or been to Quebec including Willa Cather, Albert Camus, Howard Phillips Lovecraft, Stefan Zweig, Herman Melville and others.