Giddy over Montreal: Maisonneuve's editorial buoyancy sets it apart from other new magazines
by Robert Fulford

(The National Post, 9 December 2003)

Just 18 months and six issues old, Maisonneuve has set itself apart from other new magazines by developing an insouciant tone, a high chutzpah level and a Cause, the restoration of that sweet narcissism and sure-footed elegance that made Montreal the first Canadian city anyone ever called exciting. A journal of literature and various other arts, some of them unclassifiable, Maisonneuve publishes prose, poetry and photography, but its crucial asset is the supremely confident autointoxication that in the best of times breathes life into Montreal.

The magazine is named after Paul de Chomedey de Maisonneuve, who founded the city in 1642; it's only an accident that Maisonneuve translates into the last name of S.I. Newhouse, owner of Vanity Fair, The New Yorker, etc. The name legitimates an intense and attractive obsession with the local scene. While it prints material from anywhere, Maisonneuve speaks most eloquently of Montreal, where, it insists, you find "beautiful people from all corners of the world on every corner."

At times it reads like an outlandishly sophisticated publication of the Montreal Chamber of Commerce. It also projects a giddy optimism that hasn't been heard from Montreal in ages. Derek Webster, the editor, argues: "Now that Canada's two great languages have more or less finished duking it out here, with French winning on points, recent history is a nuisance Montreal can finally ignore." In Ulysses, James Joyce has Stephen Dedalus say that "History ... is a nightmare from which I am trying to awake." In Webster's view, Montreal has opened its eyes on the future.

Where most smallish magazines move apologetically through the world, Maisonneuve is celebrating this gift season by leaping out of the glum bookish world and barging into the luxury goods market. Last week it began to market something called the Eclectic Curiosity in a Box, the most audacious product from a magazine in memory. For $34.95 it sells a gift box, hand-crafted wood with hinges, the sort of container that might hold one's supply of Cuban panatelas. Inside the box are the last four issues of Maisonneuve, a certificate promising the next six, a double-CD collection of world beat and aboriginal music called Exposed Roots, a Maisonneuve Post-it note pad, an elegant poster displaying a few dozen common objects that may or may not bear some relationship to Maisonneuve -- and a Maisonneuve pencil! It's a limited edition, 2,000 boxes, that people will talk about for years and perhaps judge, decades from now, as a sign of literary vitality in 2003.

Maisonneuve writers, most of them new to me, have in common a nice sense of detail. From its Montreal reporting, I was glad to learn that the clone-claiming, Catholic-hating Raelian cult, imported from France, holds Montreal meetings in the basement of a Jesuit church. I was equally pleased to note that in a district formerly dominated by Italians you can still see the image of Benito Mussolini among the other deities on the ceiling of the Madonna Della Difesa Church.

Being proud of the city's linguistic stew, Maisonneuve was obviously glad to report that teachers in Concordia University's French department no longer bother to ask students to state their mother tongue (the students often don't know or care). Being equally proud of the local reputation for lawlessness, the magazine reported a University of Montreal study showing that 71% of Montreal pedestrians do not wait for the light to change before crossing the street. (I've been trying to work out by intuition comparable figures for other cities: say, 100% for Rome, 15% for Toronto and 0.03% for Ottawa.)

Maisonneuve doesn't mind turning the city's reputation upside down. Just in case outlanders are still intimidated by the reputation of Montreal cuisine, it ran a restaurant column detailing the city's worst food, including probably the most disgusting-sounding dish ever described in print: coagulated jelly of pork roastings, topped with lard, available in a restaurant at Mount Royal and St. Denis. (A special Canadian touch: It tastes like galoshes.)

Maisonneuve utterly fails, however, to answer what I've always considered the key question about modern Montreal construction: In a city that lives much of the winter under a crust of snow and ice, who was the genius who decided to put stairs on the outside of residential buildings? They give the streets a unique look, but they also seem clearly designed to maim the residents.

Christopher DeWolf's article on outdoor staircases rattles on amiably about their appearance in the work of Mordecai Richler, William Weintraub, Gabrielle Roy, Michel Tremblay and David Fennario. Outdoor staircases, DeWolf writes, provide a meeting place that animates working-class culture. He doesn't mention that they also provide a handsome living for the many orthopaedic specialists who repair the broken limbs and hips of those who fail to negotiate these icy booby traps. We are left with the sense that to acknowledge this reality would be unMontrealish, and would probably violate the spirit of folk architecture.

Whatever its tendencies toward boosterism, Maisonneuve (3420 Wilson Ave., Suite 200, Montreal H4A 2T5; brings to every page an enviable editorial buoyancy. Even when the fiction and articles aren't quite as strong as they might be, the surrounding persiflage, bric-a-brac and folderol bring the total enterprise to life. All magazines describe their contributors with lordly braggadocio ("Macpherson-Pelletier's' first novel, Interlockings, produced in odd moments while he rewrote the constitution of Papua New Guinea and supervised the Kabul debut of his Concerto for Tamboura, will soon be translated into Tagalog and Romany"), but Maisonneuve carries, so far as I know, the only amusing contributors' column on the planet.

In each issue it prints contributors' answers to a single, soul-revealing question. Once they were asked what they considered the greatest invention of all time. One said the wheel, another the Internet, another the carry-on bag with wheels and retractable handle, etc. Nathan Whitlock won my heart by declaring that his favourite invention is shame. On another occasion, contributors cited their favourite opening lines in literature. Most mentioned something suitably impressive from Dostoevsky, Poe, Wilde, etc., but Ryan Kennedy quoted the first words he read when he peeked into his sister's diary: "Don't even think about reading this, Ryan, you nosy little brat." What I like best about Maisonneuve: It's never routine.

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