The setting was Sel de la semaine (Salt of the Week), at the time the Montreal-based, premiere televised interview show on Radio-Canada, hosted by the late Fernand Seguin. Seguin, elegantly dressed in a suit, speaking elegant French, introduced his guest to the audience – the famous American author Jack Kerouac, born in Lowell, Mass., to Quebecois parents.
The entire show, taken from the Radio-Canada archives, can now be seen on the Radio-Canada website. Sel de la semaine was clearly an intellectual show – interviewer and interviewee sat on a bare stage, with a jazz combo to the side. Most of the members of the audience looked like well-scrubbed university students, with the men wearing jackets and ties.
Kerouac himself was dressed in an open-necked shirt, with the sleeves rolled up. He was clearly ill at ease – furrowing his brow, fidgeting in his chair, as he tried to answer Seguin's questions in French. Almost immediately, the audience started laughing. Kerouac was puzzled. He asked Seguin why they were laughing.
"They came to see an icon – you know, Jack Kerouac, On The Road – and then he starts to speak French," explains Yves Frenette, a historian at the University of Ottawa. "But it's the French of an older generation. It's not a broken French, it's not even the French of an Anglo speaking French, it's the French of someone who's a farmer, someone far from Montreal."
Pierre Anctil, director of the Institute of Canadian Studies at the University of Ottawa, agrees. "His parents came from a rural area of Quebec in the Gaspé," he comments. "They knew the Quebec of farms and quaint people and small towns and there he was in Montreal, where the entire crew spoke French. He wasn't used to that."
To the members of his audience, anxious to be part of a modern Quebec, hearing Kerouac's French was like an educated American audience hearing a famous author speak in the hillbilly, southern accent of a guest on The Jerry Springer Show. "The way he was speaking, it wasn't so much the words by themselves, it was just the rhythm of the sentences," Anctil says. "It appeared as rural and unlearned and folkloric."