Literary Cartography

From Sainte-Catherine Street neon lights to Jean-Talon’s taxi drivers, the many facets of Montréal have been immortalized in novels, poems. A kaleidoscopic portrait.


Pointe-aux-Trembles was the country, then. There were fields of oats, rows of trees, silver poplars, cherry trees, cows. They said of us: “They live at the tip of the island,” or at the end of the island. But it’s been a long time since any Iroquois threatened to gain a foothold on the tip of the island.

Jovette Marchessault
Comme un enfant de la terre, 1975


Cartierville’s monstrous, lower-class dolls burst in the grease of mechanical laughter.

Nicole Brossard
Sold-out, 1973


I’m in front of the empty field on Jean-Talon. It’s here, in the summer, that a multitude of butterflies flutter through the thistles my sisters call “spikes.” Before I get to the corner of Saint Denis, I can see the taxis parked the length of the sidewalk. They’re waiting for clients. There’s a big black telephone screwed onto a pole. The drivers smoke, talk, and tease each other, watching the traffic, the streetcars turning in every direction at the corner of the street.

Claude Jasmin
Enfant de Villeray, 2000


Jack and Moe’s Barbershop, corner of Park Avenue and Laurier, [was] in the heart of Montréal’s old working-class Jewish quarter, where I was raised. A neighbourhood that had elected the only Communist (Fred Rose) ever to serve as a member of Parliament, produced a couple of decent club fighters (Louis Alter, Maxie Berger), the obligatory number of doctors and dentists, a celebrated gambler-cum-casino owner, more cutthroat lawyers than needed, -sundry schoolteachers and shmata millionaires, a few rabbis, and at least one suspected murderer.


I remember snow banks five feet high, winding outside staircases that had to be shovelled in the sub-zero cold, and, in days long before snow tires, the rattle of passing cars and trucks, their wheels encased in chains. Sheets frozen rock-hard on backyard clotheslines.

Mordecai Richler
Barney’s Version, 1999


Who knows it only by the famous cross which bleeds
into the fifty miles of night its light
knows a night — scene;
and who upon a postcard knows its shape —
the buffalo straggled of the Laurentian herd, —
holds in his hand a postcard.

In layers of mountains the history of mankind,
and in Mount Royal
which daily in a streetcar I surround
my youth, my childhood —
the pissabed dandelion, the coolie acorn,
green prickly husk of chestnut beneath mat of grass —
O all the amber afternoons
are still to be found.

One of these days I shall go up to the second terrace
to see if it still is there —
the uncomfortable sentimental bench
where, — as we listened to the brass of the band concerts
made soft and to our mood by dark and distance —
I told the girl I loved
I loved her.

A. M. Klein
“The Mountain”, 1947


This slip of a hill, my slip, like the most beautiful girl in town, stretches across Mount Royal, her skirts puffed from a wind gusting in from Lake Saint Louis—you can picture it over there—or from the Laurentians that, on certain days, roller coaster over the horizon.

Jacques Godbout
“La Côte-des-Neiges”, 1963


They were still on home turf as the streetcar skirted Mount Royal. (…) But when it turned south onto Saint Laurent, they sat back into their braided straw seats and calmed themselves at once. They all, without exception, owed money to the Jews on Saint Laurent, particularly to the furniture and clothes shopkeepers, and the long road that separated Mount Royal from Saint Catherine was a delicate one to travel. (…) As soon as they turned west at the corner of Saint Laurent and Saint Catherine, the jubilant crowd took up again and filled the streetcar with sonorous cries and hearty laughs. (…) The length of Saint Catherine West, their noses stuck to the windows in wintertime, and their arms leaned against the windowsills in summer. The last of them got off at Eaton’s, at the corner of University. No one from the group ever went further. West of the great store was the unknown. The English. Money. Simpson’s. Ogilvy’s. Peel Street. Guy Street. Until after Atwater, where they could start to feel at home again because the Saint-Henri neighbourhood was close, and the smell of the port.

Michel Tremblay
La grosse femme d’à côté est enceinte, 1978


You cross Christophe-Colomb, hurry past the Jardin des Merveilles, walk down a steep path and cross the bridge over the ponds with the luminous fountains which are nightly white, green, yellow, blue—the jets are like ambulatory gardening hoses going up and down in vertiginous movements—go in front of the Théâtre de Verdure, on the other side of the chalet, below where, in good weather, rowboats slide over the water among the ducks, while old folks rest or dream of the future while sucking an ice cream cone.

Jean Basile
Le Grand Khan, 1967


The neighbourhood extends between Sherbrooke Street and Pine Avenue, between Saint-Laurent Boulevard and Saint Denis Street, a quarter of overripe fruit with an appetizing rind, its juice rancid, its flesh rank, at the edge of an insomniac city whose boundaries, like a territory delineated by wild dogs, are traced with subtle smells an outsider can’t perceive without concern. Saint-Louis Square and its appendix, Prince-Arthur Street. If downtown is Montréal’s genital organ, by which the city sadly, hopelessly, copulates, Saint Louis Square lies someplace between the breast and the navel, like a supernumerary nipple, and the fountain at its centre spurts all summer long, a concrete cock that never quits unloading. The square isn’t like any other because its boundaries stretch beyond its angles, a problem to turn on the geometry poets.

Christian Mistral
Léon, Coco et Mulligan, 2007


Around here, you check your clicks, your hits
Cuz the cap guy maybe did a bit too much powder
He could get nervous around your piece-of-shit face
So you leave the P’ti Extra after eating too much
Crack house, pawnshop, a snack at BP
Jocelyn just dropped his 2500 HD
He’s 24/7, man, the cash is flowing in
He’s riding his mini biz on the corner of Frontenac
From one end right to the other of my fat street
Saint-Laurent to Létourneau, they’re not scared of nothing
It’s rough summer through winter, he’s bust
Fucken asshole you’re walking in your own graveyard

Bernard Adamus
“Rue Ontario”, 2010


The small group left on a radiant morning, a package of sandwiches underarm. Cuvillier Street brought them to Notre-Dame, where they took the streetcar in front of the long, sad factory, the neighbourhood’s famous cotton mill. The streetcar trip alone was quite an expedition, though Notre-Dame was bleak with its old, dilapidated buildings that hid the view to the river.

Roger Viau
Au milieu, la montagne, 1951


Beyond the typewriter, the open window on De Lorimier framed the carbon-monoxided sky with its dirty, oozing mullions. Parthenais Prison was out of sight from that vantage point and you saw, instead, nestled among a cluster of bricks and the concrete foliage, a clearing—a community garden—the beautiful vista opened westward giving leeway to the tip of Mount Royal, jammed between two grey, aggressive buildings, dark blue in its leafy coat. (…) Southwards, the Jacques-Cartier Bridge, visible only from the sidewalk, stormed the sky with its tangle of beams, draining the heavy traffic from beneath our balcony from which we could also see, if we craned our necks northwards, Miron’s obsolete chimneys, multicoloured arrows beneath which the city’s garbage trucks roared as they trundled off to unload their stench.

Louis Hamelin
Ces spectres agités, 2010


The great Sainte-Catherine Street gallops and clacks in the thousand and one neon nights.

Gaston Miron
“Monologue de l’aliénation délirante”, 1970


Place Ville-Marie is the natural child of our biculturalism. Erected on stilts ready to collapse, it makes me dream of the marvellous spectacle of its avalanche. It would be a sweet sight to see the 42 floors of nothingness crumble into the shape of a pyramid. Ambiguity for ambiguity, right before the beautiful explosion, I’d go to the trouble to subtract from the massacre the young girls I want to watch wander, veiled by their brilliant and sober beauty, the multiple sisters to whom I am tied, the many Maries I wouldn’t want to see implicated in this alkanic crucifixion.

Hubert Aquin
“Essai crucimorphe”, 1963


There were vacant lots everywhere. We went cherry-picking near LaSalle, we swam in the Lachine Canal, we played skits in church halls.

Gilles Archambault
La fuite immobile, 1974


I’d also convinced him, slowly but surely, that my neighbourhood was better than Pointe-aux-Trembles. There was the Lachine Canal, the bike path. There was Saint-Ambroise Street, the McAuslan Brewery, the Atwater Market. It never rained. I explained that the stretched-out letters at the end of the metro station were the title of a classic of our literature, that Jesus of Montréal died of a brain embolism right in front of those big yellow triangles.

Daniel Grenier
Les mines générales, 2013


Morning rises over Griffintown after the time of survival, the months of snow and dormancy. A precarious sun marks the east. On the horizon, the profile of a desolated landscape -traversed by rusted hills where, stratum by stratum, a genealogy of obsolete objects subsists, condemned to silence: mismatched hubcaps, worn-out -bicycle chains, warped sheet metal. In the distance stands the royal mountain, crowned in its cross, senseless to the grievances of the trees that stretch out their unadorned arms toward it like the destitute awaiting manna.

Marie Hélène Poitras
Griffintown, 2012


At the Accueil Bonneau
in Old Montréal
they welcomed me with a bowl
of hot soup
and a pair of shoes
that almost fit.
I’m a size 12.
It’s always hard
to find me things.

Dany Laferrière
Chroniques de la dérive douce, 1994


Now Suzanne takes your hand
And she leads you to the river
She is wearing rags and feathers
From Salvation Army counters
And the sun pours down like honey
On Our Lady of the Harbour
And she shows you where to look
Among the garbage and the flowers
There are heroes in the seaweed
There are children in the morning
They are leaning out for love
And they will lean that way forever
While Suzanne holds the mirror

Leonard Cohen
“Suzanne”, 1975


The river is a hernia belt. Montréal busted a gut. Every night, every morning, except the grey ones, the red of the sun in the water is the blood of the islanders that dilutes, indifferent, in the still, frozen water.

Jacques Renaud
Le cassé, 1964