Register Friday | March 23 | 2018

The Modern Salon

The keybearer to all things German in Montreal

As anyone who has followed the lives of artists over time will attest, cultural activity often begins with a few dynamic people whose creations may bear no signature but are as enduring as books and paintings. Like avowed artists, they live for art. Witness the salons of eighteenth-century Europe, where ideas were exchanged or stolen, introductions made, careers launched. If Montreal boasts anything like a European salon, a certain third-floor apartment in Outremont deserves the citation.

On a typical summer evening, the dining room table is set with fresh linen and silver, guests wedged between a heavy wooden buffet and china cabinet, served delicious, fresh courses with a distinct Germanic touch. By dessert, a few more chairs are added when a second wave rings the doorbell. Talk revolves around projects: playwright Larry Tremblay’s Welsh opera, director Alexander Hausvater’s new life in Bucharest, my partner’s history of Indian Ocean trade, my own novel-in-progress.

While the conversation could happen at many tables in Montreal, this one is presided over by a remarkable woman, Marie-Elisabeth Morf. A trilingual dynamo known to any Quebecer interested in German arts and letters, Morf has had her finger in every important apfeltorte served up here in the past thirty-five years. Her institutional basis is the Montreal Goethe-Institut’s library and documentation centre, where she serves as head librarian. Her strength lies in making connections; as she told her superiors when offered the job in 1969, “I’m not the librarian type. I really don’t want to give books out.” After the heady summer of Expo 67, Morf was exactly what the Federal Republic of Germany needed for its cultural centre in Eastern Canada.

In the decades since then, she has become a discreet but important player in Quebec’s effort to forge a cultural profile in Europe. German journalists and academics are regularly wined and dined at her home, and often put up in her spare room; through the Goethe-Institut, she has launched several important exchange projects, culminating three years ago in a thick, German-language compendium of Quebec writers, Anders schreibendes Amerika: Literatur aus Québec.

“The anthology is an important calling card for Quebec, and a first,” says Pierre Filion, the book’s Quebec editor. Several full-length prose translations have already appeared in Germany, and a number of Quebec plays have been produced. Of Elisabeth’s impact over the decades, he adds, “It’s hard to know where her professional and personal interests divide. She’s one of those expansive personalities who makes things happen.”

Since the mid-1980s, Elisabeth has also collaborated on translations of dozens of German plays, working evenings and weekends, often with her partner Louis Bouchard. Ironically, Quebec theatre artists have often been more successful in France with fresh translations of German classics than with the French repertoire—or even with Quebec plays. In the summer of 1997, director Denis Marleau’s production of Nathan le sage, a new French translation of Lessing’s classic by Marleau and Morf, opened to rave reviews at the Avignon Festival. Staged under the stars in the vast Cour d’honneur, it was an impressive event. I happened to be there, and noticed that, as usual, Elisabeth kept her distance from the limelight. Nevertheless, the event inspired her to think seriously about personal and professional priorities.

This fall Elisabeth Morf will retire from the Goethe-Institut, after serving with six directors over more than three decades. The announcement came as a surprise to those who consider her a fixture on the Quebec-Europe cultural scene. A perfect pretext, I decided, to drop round and ask the backstage presence a few questions about herself.

Soft-spoken, unfailingly generous, Elisabeth at sixty-two is a spiritual force and a physical phenomenon. Ample would be my word. Rounded is hers. She meets me at the door in matching black lace trousers and blouse, billowing pant-legs revealing skin to the thighs. I have always marvelled at her sensuousness, her immense poise and quiet self-confidence. Consummately maternal, she raised her son alone and has unofficially adopted her late brother’s daughter Maria, who now lives permanently in Montreal. For the past twenty years, she has lived with a man nineteen years her junior who any woman of any age would declare a hunk. Two years ago, she caved in to his long-running campaign, and they got married.

As a student and lover of all things German, Louis Bouchard bicycled to the Goethe regularly to take out books and films and chat with the librarian. “He [was] always late,” she says, “I finally called him and said, ‘If you don’t get your books back right away, you’ll have to bring a very large bouquet of flowers.’” A few days later he peddled up with a parcel carrier full of blooms from his own garden, so she invited him to dinner, thinking the twenty-three-year-old might be the perfect match for her sixteen-year-old niece Maria, who had come from Germany to study. Louis had other ideas.

“I must say, he persisted,” she says with a laugh. “I told him, this is ridiculous, but he didn’t agree. Louis was right. It’s the best partnership I’ve ever had.” Louis runs a German-language bookstore in the building owned by the Goethe-Institut. Watching the two together, it is clear their relationship revolves around a shared love of culture—Québécois and German, as well as the many ways the two are laced together through a growing number of contacts and projects. When observers say Montreal has a Continental or cosmopolitan flavour, they aren’t merely picking up on a sometimes graceful landscape, or a diverse blend of  peoples walking the sidewalks. Much more profound is the impact of people like Elisabeth who’ve invested heavily in Quebec culture, for its own sake and not from a political agenda.

A sign of how the times have changed: Elisabeth Morf first came to Montreal in 1962 to learn English. Born in Germany, she studied library science, and was offered a job with a German publishing house, on the condition that she perfect her grasp of the international business language. She landed a job as an au pair in Montreal, where she met her first husband, a Swiss studying at McGill. They settled in Strasbourg for a time, but returned to Montreal in Expo year. Elisabeth stayed for good.

“The Québécois at that time were asleep,” she recalls. “Since then they’ve woken up. They are so creative. I’d say naively creative. They are not afraid to do without thinking. In Europe it’s the other way around. The head comes first in Europe. I love that about the Québécois, they are so open and their creativity comes out of the heart and guts first. Then the intellectual.”

Retirement will not be a time of repose. She is writing a musical about Marlene Dietrich with the German-born singer Eva. And, though it sounds like a mad idea for someone who in one breath vows it’s time to slow down, Elisabeth and Louis are planning to open a literary café, combining the German bookstore with a schedule of readings and cultural events. I protest strongly that running a business is antithetical to reflection and rest. She counters with a look that banishes all fatigue and declares that she will involve young people from the start, so they can take over. “It’s just that we know so many people,” she says. “They all should get to know each other. So, we will do it.”

Reading the biographies of great salon hostesses, one often has the impression that in another time and place, had circumstances offered the opportunity, they might have turned their creative talents to other ends. In Elisabeth’s case, it seems she too has embraced her time and choices with gusto, and made much of the opportunities at hand. Quebec culture is the better for it.