Autumn Rounds by Jacques Poulin | Book Review

“She had started to pick some new books and it was a pleasure to see how comfortable she was in the library. She’d pick up the books, leaf them, stroke them, talk to them, and breathe in their odor. Bathed in the soft light spread by the sun as it set behind the village, she turned around, searching through all the shelves (…).”

“It’s is true that the books protect us but their protection doesn’t last forever. It’s a little like a dream. One day or another, life catches up with us.”

Autumn Rounds by the Canadian writer, Jacques Poulin is a gentle, tender, luminous and deeply meditative novel exploring the meaning of solitude, literature in our life, human connections, growing old and finding love at mature age. It is also an ode to the natural beauty of the Quebec landscapes and their power to heal physical and emotional wounds. Jacques Poulin offers a tale of many ordinary moments of seemingly simplistic tasks becoming an extraordinary event.

Writing is subtle and delicate to reflect the inner life of the main protagonist, the Driver and people he encounters during his journey. Poulin’s prose conveys soothing melancholy in which characters in his book find the air of comfort.

With chapters like Light from Books Autumn Rounds is a wonderful treat for bibliophiles.

Autumn Rounds tells a story of a gentle middle-age man referred to as the Driver who runs a mobile library travelling around Quebec along the north bank St Lawrence river visiting little towns and villages lending his books to the readers with their unique tastes for great literature. He is a sensitive character, with firm convictions and empathy for his fellow human beings as well as animals – before starting up his van he always checks if there are cats under his mobile library to ensure he does not hurt them. Thanks to the Driver the books get to isolated villages warming people’s spirits. The books he delivers to people constantly move around and are on their own journey. According to the Driver this is “the best thing that could happen to them.” In Autumn Rounds books are associated with light, and they almost have a spiritual meaning.

“He’d spent part of his childhood reading in that room flooded with light, sitting in a deep armchair with his feet resting on the window ledge. And over time, because the sun had brightened him and warmed him while he was reading, his mind had associated light with books. That’s why I wasn’t surprised later on when I saw Shakespeare and Company in Paris one autumn evening, with the golden light that came from the books and spread into the blue light (….).”

Music and travel lovers will be chuffed with the references to the soothing music by Leonard Cohen, Yves Montand, and mentions of various bookstores including Shakespeare and Company in Paris. As for the city of Paris, it also holds a special place in the Driver’s and other people’s life.

“Did you like Paris?”

“A lot. I felt at home there because id read Hemingway’s book, A Moveable Feast. (…) When I got to Paris I went to the places where Hemingway had lived. I took his book and followed the same route: up Cardinal-Lemoine to La Contrescarpe, across the Place du Pantheon, I walked for a while along boulevard Saint-Michel, then I turned onto the little rue de l’Odeon to follow him into Shakespeare and Company. (…) All those places, especially the Place de la Contrescarpe, were even more wonderful than they’d been in my dreams.”

Jacques Poulin’s novel is a gentle homage to literature and finding answers to burning questions in books and the importance of relationship between written word and readers. In Autumn Rounds human connections are based on the similar love for novels where people discuss books they love to find out what values they share.

“(…) the Driver had some idiosyncratic ideas: for instance, he was convinced that if two people were really made to get along together, they should like not only the same books and the same songs, but also the same passages in these books and songs.”

During his rounds, the Driver meets a variety of readers, some of them are damaged people, or going through a heartbreak or depression, experiencing sleepless nights, with unique interests in the literary works of art including a special love for Quebec poets such as Gabirelle Roy, Anne Hibert, Roch Carrier, Felix LecLerc among others as well as writers from far away lands such as Kyrgyzstan. On his journey through Quebec we meet the readers wearing cracked jackets and white silk scarfs that remind the Driver of the aviators-writers such as Antoine de Saint-Exupéry. There are readers who are storekeepers, mountain guides, carers working in the elderly homes, factory workers, nurses…readers who look for “a special book”, “ a book that answers questions”, “why we live, why we die.”

“She’d read a great many little-known authors, who weren’t discussed in the literary magazines and who came from places as varied as South Africa, Iceland, Australia, and Eastern Europe. Chingiz Aitmatov, for instance. She had long been familiar with the work of the writer from Kyrgyzstan (…) He had fallen in love with everything by that writer, whose existence he’d been unaware of until then.”

“(…) most of the books she’d chosen were favorites of his, books that had illuminated his life in the same way that lighthouses guide the sailors on the river. The pile included The Old Man and the Sea, The Catcher in the Rye, L’Eclum des jours, L’Avalee des avales, The World According to Garp, Salut Galarneau, On the Road, Agaguk, Bonjour Tristesse, and Letters to a Young Poet. He also spotted La Storia by Elsa Morante (…).”

Autumn Rounds constitutes also a delicate meditation on ageing and finding romantic connections later in life.

“(…) I thought my heart had gone to sleep. Life is stronger that we are (…) And we’ve got all eternity for sleeping.”

“As far as age is concerned, I’m no longer young but I’m not an old man either. Still, I’ve lived long enough to know that everything people say about our golden years, wisdom, serenity – that’s all totally false. At my age I haven’t learned any of the essential things – the meaning of life, good and evil …. It is as if all my experience boils down to nothing. (…) I still have the same fears, the same desires, the same needs that I had as a child.”

Ultimately this is a quiet and gentle read with a sensitive character at its centre with many ruminations on ordinary life and daily tasks and activities making one’s existence a bit less painful. It is a wonderful book to read during the first months of autumn especially when one is in need of something soul-soothing.

“I wanted to know how books come into the world… And its still a mystery to me. The older we get, the fewer certainties we have.”

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