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Wednesday October 13, 2010

Montreal surgeon led parallel life as writer

Under the pen name Bertrand Vac, Aimé Pelletier took on controversial subjects and broke new literary ground in Quebec

Special to The Globe and Mail

The names Aimé Pelletier and Bertrand Vac belonged to the same person but represented two very different personalities.

Pelletier was a long-time Montreal-area surgeon who kept his private life hidden from his hospital colleagues, while Vac authored books that provoked readers and broke new literary ground in Quebec.

Aimé Pelletier, a.k.a. Bertrand Vac, died in his sleep at 95 on July 23 in Montreal.

While his first two novels were controversial for their time - the early fifties - they managed to escape the hold on reading tastes that Quebec's Catholic Church exercised at the time. The two books had been released by a small publishing house that was not going to let the Church's ability to control publishers' access to lucrative textbook contracts stop it from publishing more sophisticated literature that Quebec was beginning to desire.

Pelletier's work coincided with the birth of an indigenous Quebec literary scene, and his pioneering publisher, Le cercle du livre de France (which became Les Éditions Pierre Tisseyre), shepherded several other freethinking authors, including Ottawa's Claire Martin, who in her novels regularly critiqued that era's social conventions, and later the politically active essayist Hubert Aquin.

Pelletier wrote 14 books in a career that spanned almost 60 years. During most of that period, he earned his living at the Verdun General Hospital, working for 31 years as a surgeon and another 22 years in semi-retirement as a surgical assistant.

The first Vac book, Louise Genest, published in 1950, was a novel about a rural homemaker who escapes an abusive husband and falls in love with a Métis man. The second, Deux portes ... une addresse, published in 1952, tells the story of a soldier returning to a boring domestic life in Canada, unable to forget the woman he fell in love with in France.

With the theme of adultery in both books, he was not only taking on the Church but also heralding a new movement of liberal and social issues that was beginning to sweep the intellectual and literary class in Quebec.

"He was a writer for his generation," said literary historian and McGill professor emeritus Jean-Pierre Duquette, who saw those first two books as moral tales and important works for their day, but ones that had been forgotten by most Quebeckers.

Throughout his long career, which stretched from his mid-30s into his early 90s, Vac experimented with several styles. He is believed to be the first Quebecker to publish a detective novel, the award-winning 1956 book, L'assassin dans l'hôpital, about a nurse involved in a spiralling series of cover-up murders.

One year earlier, he had written a well-received political satire, Saint-Pépin, P.Q., which sent up the rural bourgeois and the politically corrupt, and in the late sixties, he wrote an entire book of aphorisms entitled Mes pensées "profondes" (My "Profound" Thoughts). The book included many witty lines, such as "It's the sick who suffer but the doctors that get paid," "The bigger the city, the more quickly people speak," "Don't make any decisions in bed" and "Cynicism saves you a lot of time."

His writings also include a historical novel, a radio play, short stories and an autobiography.

Aimé Pelletier was born Aug. 20, 1914, in Saint-Ambroise-de-Kildare, Que., a village outside Joliette, 80 kilometres north of Montreal. He was the eighth of 10 children of Arthur and Lumina (née Labbé). When Aimé was four, his father, the local doctor, moved the family to Joliette. The older children had to attend high school and the doctor needed a larger practice to pay for their schooling.

The Pelletier house, during the Depression, never turned away a hungry person and was a constant place of lively conversations at the dinner table, with Pelletier's grandfather often taking the role of devil's advocate.

In the early 1930s, Pelletier hoped to become an architect, but his father talked him out of it, saying that most architects during the Depression were going hungry, while a doctor's practice would never lack for clients. Pelletier conceded and took up medical studies at the University of Laval in Quebec City.

In 1939, he graduated from medical school. The same year fighting broke out in Europe, and he enlisted. Capt. Pelletier was stationed in France, working in field hospitals just behind the front lines. He would see much horror during that time, including the Battle of Normandy and the release of allied prisoners of war.

After the war, Pelletier decided to specialize in surgery and went to Paris to train. His classmates there didn't take to the name Aimé. So, for the two years he was there, he was known as Bertrand, which they felt better suited him.

Having been enamoured with French culture in the late forties, Pelletier returned to Canada disappointed in Quebec's artistic offerings. "He would say that it was a cultural desert here," said his niece, Françoise Couture.

With a deep-seated belief in free expression, a hunger for debate and a need to shake things up, he took up writing. Those feelings were given a platform by his publisher, Pierre Tisseyre, with whom he kept a close relationship until Tisseyre's death in 1995.

Tisseyre's publishing house ran the equivalent of a book-of-the-month club, as well as giving out an award, the Prix du Cercle du Livre de France, which Pelletier won in its inaugural year, 1950, as well as in 1952 and 1965.

In Pelletier's parallel universe, from 1949 he worked as a general surgeon in Verdun, then a middle-class city in the south end of the island of Montreal.

He used a nom de plume, Couture theorizes, to avoid embarrassing any of his patients. The first name, Bertrand, was his Paris moniker and the last name, Vac, was apropos, being the name of the Hindu goddess of speech.

Pelletier was able, for the most part, to keep his two professions separate. He would rise at 4:30 a.m. to write until 7:30, when he would leave for his hospital job. At night, he would usually take in a cultural event or host a dinner party for intellectuals and artists.

After Saint-Pépin, P.Q. was published, CBC journalist Gérald Pelletier (later Trudeau's secretary of state) booked an interview with him at his hospital. The interview was cancelled because he had to perform an emergency surgery.

"He was a writer as much as he was a surgeon," said McGill's Duquette, who was also part of his social circle for many years.

Duquette said that while Pelletier had a great ability to draw detailed characters and describe all types of situations, he sometimes lacked passion in his prose. "He had the eye of a doctor," said Duquette, who admitted that the work could sometimes come off as clinical.

Pelletier never married but received many proposals - even into his 80s - admitting to his niece that he never loved anyone enough to marry them, and saying in his 2008 autobiography that he could not sacrifice that much of himself just to make someone else happy. "Freedom for him was paramount," Couture said.

Couture said her uncle also told her he never felt fear. One example of that quality played out while he was on vacation in Turkey in 1960, when a coup d'état broke out and his tourist bus was blocked. He got out of the bus, walked past the angry protesters and proceeded to his hotel, while the rest of the passengers waited for the all-clear. Another example was when a Montreal fish store, Waldman's, held a strike in the 1980s and he nonchalantly walked past the picket line. One worker yelled, "Our strike!" He yelled back, "My fish!"

Pelletier leaves his niece Françoise Couture, his sister-in-law Evelyne Plouffe, as well as many cousins, nephews, nieces and friends.

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