Skip to main content

Spadina Literary Review  —  edition 6 page 14


Parisians were developing gastronomic distinctions even under siege. The tendency may have begun in grim humor as it did with Crémazie:

Of all the odd meats we’ve ingested since the start of the siege, the best is incontestably that of donkey. Its flesh is as tender and its taste is as agreeable as that of lamb. It’s a real Feast of Balthazar when you can procure a slice of Mister Dobbin.

By December, the Paris mortality rate (civilian deaths not directly due to military activity) averaged 2,500 per week, triple the normal rate. Malnutrition was a major factor, and diseases such as smallpox and scurvy were appearing. Mortality was especially high among children since milk was nowhere to be found.

How Crémazie became a fugitive

It's about time to mention that Crémazie had had a previous existence in Paris. That was so far back that it might seem like someone else’s life, yet it was that period that ultimately led to the predicament he was in now. It was back in the 1850s, in the years when Crémazie would come to Paris on annual shopping junkets for his bookstore. Tho he lived modestly in Quebec City, once he hit Paris he would live it up — he became a megalomaniac, some people said, but clearly the root problem was a colonial inferiority complex. He stayed at the best hotels, hosted the big publishers, went wining and dining with the prized writers. Crémazie put on the facade of not some backwoods pedlar but rather a trans-Atlantic cultural high-roller, the kind of persona who merited unlimited credit from Parisian dealers. And that was exactly the kind of persona Parisian dealers wanted to give unlimited credit to! “Cher maître,” they called him, as they sold him more goods than he could ever handle, at prices he could ill afford. After each trip, hundreds of crates would arrive on the docks of Québec — not only books, but wines, cheeses, toys, and religious paraphernalia, for the Crémazie shop dealt in gifts too. With insufficient room on the retail floor, much of the merchandise went to a warehouse, where creditors (after the eventual bankruptcy) found dozens of crates that had never even been opened.

The firm, outwardly solid, was near ruin. Crémazie’s solution was to conceal the truth. He tapped money lenders in the lower town, offering them promissory notes backed by reputable friends who signed as guarantors. As the notes came due, Crémazie paid them off by issuing more notes, except that now he was forging the guarantors’ signatures including even that of his brother Jacques. It was a nightmare, Crémazie recalled later. In the back room he still wrote poetry — ghastly, macabre stuff now, featuring corpses dialoguing with worms. (Let's not go there.) As the financial hole grew deeper, Crémazie’s deceptions grew more reckless. He lost measure of how much was owed. People later put the figure at $100,000 — enormous for a shop of those times.