Authority: Maude Veilleux, ‘Prague’

Maude Veilleux, Prague. Translated from the French by Aleshia Jensen and Aimee Wall. QC Fiction, Montréal, 2019.

So far I’ve resisted reading the obvious candidates in the recently revived fashion for autofiction – the likes of Rachel Cusk, Sheila Heti, Ben Lerner – and perhaps most egregiously Karl Ove Knausgård. When I first read this ARC of Montréal writer Maude Veilleux’s novel Prague I found myself deep in autofictional narrative, and felt uneasy.

It’s a genre that’s uncomfortable with third-person narrators, invented or ‘well rounded’, invented characters and, well, plots (by definition ‘untruthful’). I’m too old, I thought, for this kind of stuff. It’s for the social media generation.

Veilleux Prague coverAt one point our unnamed female narrator, who seems as far as I can tell a pretty close match (or alter ego) to what can be known about the real-life author, feeling depressed and in the throes of an existential crisis, writes that she ‘turned to Facebook to validate [her] existence’. Just as these shared online photos and words confirm her being ‘present in the world’, it’s a record of herself, so by making this novel similarly “authentic”, ‘I could also say: I have a book, I exist. It validated my pain.’ Elsewhere she says that writing alone could save her. Seems to me this is more than autofiction: more of a testament of fiction as personal Cartesian salvation.

The narrator self-consciously presents herself on stage, for performing at poetry readings for example, as

…vulnerable. I take care to look pretty. Perfectly groomed. Perfectly made up. Batting my eyelashes with timed grace…My fragility is my strength. But what they don’t know is that I’m a force of destruction, an enchantress. The prey and the predator.

When the boyfriend, Sébastien, sees pages of this novel in draft, and she’s afraid he’ll react badly:

He smiled, a little uncomfortable. He said: I sound like a jerk…like the boyfriend in that Nelly Arcan book, Hysteric. I hated that guy.

I smiled.

I told him I would be sad to lose him.

 

The novel opens with her and her soon-to-be lover joking about going to Prague largely because he likes Kundera. It ends with her visiting Kafka’s grave in that city, and a sort of manifesto emerges:

Maybe my interest in intimate stories lies in the encounter with the other. Without falsehood or façade.

She explains why she – this narrator – decided ‘to write autofiction in 2016, ten years after Nelly Arcan.’

I had to look her up. Sex, death and suicide; she killed herself in 2009 aged 36, as she predicted in her fiction (except there she said she wouldn’t make it to 31; Prague’s narrator is 31). These all feature prominently in Prague. The narrator admits to a ‘fascination with suicide’, even attempts it. There’s a lot of graphic sex; the narrator says she and her husband are bisexual; the affair with Sébastian is something of a departure for her. It all comes violently BDSM with him, to the point where the woman almost dies: ‘I wanted to believe he could kill me.’ He squeezes her neck harder: ‘I thought he must love me a little.’

Thanatos and Eros. The death drive and the sex instinct, destruction and creation. Maybe writing fiction is a kind of struggle with these drives, seems to be one message?

(Annie Ernaux, another exponent of a kind of confessional autofiction, is also quoted.)

When she worries that her life experience is being ruined because she writes it into her novel, and writing about it is destructive of life, the lines between reality and story are blurred. Like the enchanted (or cursed) Lady of Shalott the narrator can’t just observe the world; she has to participate, experience it, but to do so precludes artistic creativity and destroys her – life, for her, is destructive. But she enchants Lancelot with her ‘lovely face’.

So a novel about writing a novel is really a novel about living, as existentialists might say, authentically. Like all good novels? The story itself becomes the truth.

As I reread the novel I began to appreciate it more. Its choppy, curt sentences, the fragmented structure, non sequiturs and non-linear narrative, chronological shifts. It’s not an imitation of real life, after all, or stream of consciousness. It’s as much a construct, a fiction, as more conventional fiction. Hence all those literary allusions.

On p. 88 the narrator inserts this one line paragraph:

Lies are a device often used in fiction.

If all novels are lies (it’s the Cretan liar paradox) then so is autofiction. For all its apparent self-revelation, unveiling and demasking, its self-absorption, it’s still fiction. This is on p. 77:

The height of narcissism. To make a novel of yourself. To make yourself into a novel to give yourself a little meaning. Mostly, to be afraid of not existing.

I have no way of knowing if this is ‘true’ – but it’s as valid a form of fiction as Kafka’s tortured explorations of identity and reality, or Melville’s, Chaucer’s. In fact all fiction, as Philip Roth has kind of suggested, is a sort of autofiction – but it’s not autobiography.

No shaping, no representations. Creating characters didn’t really appeal to me anymore. What could I do with those invented lives?

Jonathan Gibbs at his blog Tiny Camels, wrote about autofiction last year here. He says (much more coherently than I’m doing in these ramblings) it’s possible to like this kind of fiction and the other, more conventional kind. They’re not necessarily mutually exclusive – provided we don’t condemn the kind of narrative that adopts anything other than the ‘I am a camera’ kind of approach, subverting and disrupting the reader’s position. Who can tell how ‘invented’ the lives in any work of fiction can be? Look up the person’s biography and compare the fiction: they’re different, even if there’s a superficial resemblance in the detail. See how that phrase about batting the lashes ‘with timed grace’ works in a way that surely couldn’t in non-fiction.

This has turned out to be not so much a review as a musing. A muddle. Sorry about that. I’m still trying to figure out what I make of this exhilarating, baffling novel.

Kudos to Montréal publishers QC Fiction for continuing to turn out risky and unconventional translations of Canadian fiction.

B.Moore, HH Richardson, E. Bowen, G. Gazdanov. Update pt 1

After an illness (still persisting) and short break visiting family near Barcelona, there’s been something of a hiatus on TD. Here’s a quick update (part 1) on reading since last time:

Brian Moore, The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearn coverBrian Moore, The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearn, Harper Perennial, 2007; first published 1955. This was Moore’s first novel published under his own name. Set in his birthplace, Belfast, it deals with what were to become some of his key topics: (loss of) RC faith, sex, solitude and the difficulties of connecting. It tells the sad story of a 40-ish spinster’s decline into serious problems as she struggles to deal with her isolation and inability to forge relationships. She’s lost and desperate. Moore shows impressive ability to inhabit the  troubled consciousness of this lonely woman. I was inspired to read the novel by JacquiWine’s post last year; she has an excellent, detailed post about it here

HH Richardson, The Getting of Wisdom coverHenry Handel Richardson, The Getting of Wisdom. VMC 1981; first published 1910. Born in Australia under the name Ethel Florence Lindesey Richardson, the author moved to Europe as a young woman and studied music in Leipzig. This semi-autobiographical novel relates the development of spirited, mercurial Laura Tweedle Rambotham from her move to boarding school in Melbourne at the age of twelve to her final days there aged sixteen. Unlike the other girls she comes from a poor background. Richardson subverts the usual girls’ school kind of narrative – this is no Chalet School. The teachers are bored, incompetent or vindictive, or all three. The other girls are much the same. Too impetuous to curb her spontaneity, Laura tries desperately to conform and be liked; she fails. She even stoops to aping the peevish snobbery and factional squabbling and bullying of her privileged peers, but acceptance and friendship elude her. As her sexuality awakens, she develops a passion for an attractive older girl – but as usual her judgement is faulty and she is destined for painful experiences. It’s a fascinating, lively account, partly marred by too much detail about Laura’s attempt to find some kind of solace in religious faith.

E. Bowen, Friends and Relations coverElizabeth Bowen, Friends and Relations. Penguin Modern Classics, 1984; first published 1931. I disliked this. Maybe it was the illness I was in the throes of. The basic premise is promising: two sisters marry, but one is in love with her sister’s husband. I simply had no interest in what would happen to these otiose, bloodless upper-class characters – they live in huge houses and have little to do but lust after each other. Elfrida is interestingly done: non-conformist, passionate. The prose is over-ornate, mannered and look-at-me ‘fine writing’. Disappointing; I’d read other Bowen novels long ago and enjoyed them.

 

Gazdanov Spectre A Wolf coverGaito Gazdanov, The Spectre of Alexander Wolf. Translated by Bryan Karetnyk. Pushkin Press, 2013. First published in Russian 1947-48. Another novel with semi-autobiographical tendencies. A sixteen year old lad fighting for the White Russians in the civil war following the Bolshevik Revolution thinks he’s murdered a man. Later he reads a story which seems to tell that story. Further coincidences and fusions of what he considers his reality and some other order of experience take place. It’s an intriguing blend of war narrative, bildungsroman, down and out in Paris account with murders, lowlifes and gangsters (there’s even a reference to ‘apaches’ in the slang French sense), blended with a Proustian memory theme and existential duplications. Reminded me (in a good way) of Blaise Cendrars’ Dan Yack novels – not just the content I just summarised, but the mix of gritty urban noir with surreal narrative shifts.

Laurence Leduc-Primeau, In the End…

Laurence Leduc-Primeau, In the End They Told Them All to Get Lost, translated by Natalia Hero, is published by QC Fiction of Québec this month – my thanks to them for this ARC.

It’s not their strongest title in what’s been so far an excellent series of prose fiction works translated from the French. Here’s a link to those I’ve posted on here so far.

My favourite to date is Eric Dupont’s Giller Prize shortlisted epic Songs for the Cold of Heart, which does what all fine fiction does: creates its own world and characters out of recognisable features and makes them new. This new title is a typically unconventional choice for the publishers: it’s essentially a long stream of fragments of the thoughts and impressions of the narrator, a young Canadian woman called Chloé who has ended up in a Spanish-speaking South American country, and is trying to make sense of her new, alien surroundings.

Leduc-Primeau, In the End cover‘My God, it’s humid’, she thinks early on. ‘How can you stand it?’ What marks out the narrative from the run of the mill is the originality of the narrative perspective: Chloé is here addressing her only friend – a stain on the wall she’s named Betty.

She complains about the endless noise, the ‘people who use their windows as ashtrays.’ The din gets inside her skull:

No wonder they say this town is the therapy capital of the world.

Everyone’s crazy here. That’s why I came.

Her housemates are a feckless lot. There’s a lot of debauchery and decadence, very little in the way of plot.

What sustains the reader’s interest is that fey, vulnerable voice of the narrator’s. She’s lonely, desperate for human connection, prepared to settle for exploitative sex if necessary. She doesn’t even speak the local language at first, but things improve when she becomes more fluent. She even gets a job as a theatre receptionist.

Still she finds the world around her difficult to interpret. It’s full of significance that almost always eludes her. She struggles to integrate her life and her heart.

As an account of a young woman’s attempt to coalesce with the world she inhabits it’s a daring, raw and engaging narrative. Its fragmentary nature is an apt reflection of her experience and sensibility.

The translator has done a fine job in rendering the rangy, demotic voice of this narrator: the prose never drags its heels. She does well to leave the frequent Spanish expressions in their original: this heightens the sense of Chloé’s exclusion from the language and the lives of others. Her growth is indicated by her starting to meditate on the semantics and structures of that Spanish language.

Thanks again to QC Fiction for making available to the anglophone world these works that deserve wider dissemination – every one in the series that I’ve read so far has been original and fresh.

Available April 15.

 

Lost at sea: Charles Quimper, In Every Wave

Charles Quimper, In Every Wave. QC Fiction, available from 1 November 2018. First published 2017 as Marée montante

In a recent interview in the online magazine Québec Reads Charles Quimper was asked:

What, if anything, would you say defines Quebec literature?

 

An inwardness of character, I think, and a complexity in the emotions they experience. There’s a toughness, a harshness of tone that’s difficult to capture or define in just a few words.

This sums up the first-person narrative – monologue – and the narrator’s tangled, indefinable sensations and emotions in Quimper’s first novel, In Every Wave.

Quimper Every Wave coverIt belongs to that sub-genre of fiction which deals with a parent’s anguish and torment at the loss of a child. Ian McEwan is the only example that comes to mind (toddler goes missing in supermarket), but I’m sure there are more I’ve forgotten about.

In the same interview the author says that it’s a novel’s ‘opening lines that grab my attention. They have to land, leave their mark. I enjoy discovering images that are still new to me, scenes made up of words that leave me in a swirl of ideas.’ Here’s the opening paragraph of his novel:

It was June when I set sail on my boat’s maiden voyage. I carried the bare essentials. A few pounds of supplies, your little pink box, a battleships game, and the endless echo of our days together.

I’m not sure ‘harshness of tone’ is what he does here, though there’s a brittle matter-of-factness masking the pain underneath. The two short, simple sentences are deceptive, their apparent confidence waylaid by the heartbreaking list of stores that’s given in that long, swirling third sentence – all addressed to the lost child. After the mundane, trivial objects, with their connotations of seafaring and childhood, we get that tortured abstract noun phrase signifying emptiness, loss, bereavement.

What follows is a poetic evocation of the father’s descent into personal hell as he tries to come to terms with the death of his little girl. The narrative is slippery and unreliable: we’re given three different accounts of how she died. It’s as if the detail is immaterial; it’s only the grim fact that she’s dead that counts. The rest is narrative.

As he builds his ship of death, then sails it on an increasingly fantastic voyage reminiscent of legendary travellers like St Brendan and Mandeville, one is invited to share all that’s happening in his head, as in Golding’s Pincher Martin. He’s in such inner turmoil he’s incapable of distinguishing the material world, which increasingly lacks definition for him, from the infernal zone he’s trapped or adrift in with memories of his equally lost, unanchored little girl.

It’s impossible to read this novella – it’s less than eighty pages long – without partaking in that parental torment. Quimper takes us to places most of us hope never to go in real life, creating a work of art out of imagined catastrophe.

The translation by Guil Lefebvre is seamless and fluent: it can’t have been easy to render this heightened language from the French, yet he’s produced a version that reads idiomatically and smoothly – the sign of a good translation is that the reader is never conscious of reading something translated.

QC Fiction continue to produce an impressively varied and consistently interesting sequence of prose fiction titles.

There are fuller accounts at the following blogs:

Stu at Winstonsdad

Tony at Tony’s Reading List

ARC courtesy of QC Fiction.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Puccinian love is merciless: Eric Dupont, Songs for the Cold of Heart

Eric Dupont, Songs for the Cold of Heart. QC Fiction (an imprint of Baraka Books). Paperback. Published 1 July, 2018. First published in French as La Fiancée américaine by Marchand de feuilles. Translated by Peter McCambridge

On the first page of Eric Dupont’s Songs for the Cold of Heart we learn that

everyone loved to hear Louis “The Horse” Lamontagne’s tall tales. Before television, his stories were the best way to pass the time in Rivière-du-Loup.

All the Lamontagne men must marry a woman called Madeleine: the penitent sinner-saint is the icon of the narrative, incarnated several times across the generations, as the name passes down the family’s female line.

The setting is a real town on the St Lawrence River’s south bank in Quebec province. The novel is full of tall tales, anecdotes and stories within stories. It’s a long book – over 600 pages – but never flags, largely because of Dupont’s extraordinary panache in story-telling. All of his characters are full of incident-packed stories of varying authenticity, and they delight in sharing them with each other, often in epistolary form, which adds another potential level of partiality. As Magdalena in Berlin tells the Canadian, Gabriel Lamontagne:

“Canadians love stories. If they didn’t tell them, there wouldn’t be a Canada today.”

A prominent feature is its intertextual, synaesthetic relationship to music, as its title in English suggests; Wittgenstein wrote, ‘Understanding a sentence is much more akin to understanding a theme in music than one may think’. This is a novel that reinterprets, deconstructs and reassembles Tosca (jealousy; obsessive, transgressive passion; suicide), and Puccini’s opera is a leitmotif in the narrative: ‘while ordinary love is cruel, Puccinian love is merciless,’ one character comments near the end.

Other musical works weave in and out of the narrative, from Schubert songs (one is said to be ‘for the cold of heart’) to hymns in church. It’s a novel that engages all the reader’s senses, in a way I can’t recall experiencing before in a literary work, though the epiphanic, transformative, almost mystical influence of heard, performed or imagined music on central characters calls to mind the impact of a lovesong overheard by Gretta Conroy in Joyce’s ‘The Dead’.

Eric Dupont, Songs for the Cold of Heart coverJust as in music, especially opera, there are recurring motifs and themes (foregrounding the way characters replicate or defy their forebears’ personality traits – a postmodern spin on Zola, perhaps): birthmarks in the shape of a bass clef (hence the image on the cover); a painting of the Death (or Entombment) of the Virgin; teal-coloured eyes (many of the Lamontagne family have them, and they’re mesmeric, ‘achingly beautiful’); a lost gold cross fatefully inscribed with its owner’s initials; anorexic opera singers; sugar as a murder weapon; arrows that find unaimed-for targets across the space of continents and time.

Names of people and places reappear in different languages as significant echoes, for language is a medium of communication and separation: Magdalena Berg in Berlin is a German equivalent of Canadian Madeleine Lamontagne; Montreal is Königsberg. An aphorism from Hannah Arendt about victims and executioners acts as a summary of 20C horrors, and as a haunting refrain to this novel. Dupont is too subtle and innovative a writer just to iterate such symmetries for the sake of pleasing design; each recurrence resonates in a cunningly different way, wrong-footing and intriguing the reader, and springing further surprises. He’s a consummate, exuberant storyteller who, like all the great ones, from Chaucer and Cervantes to Borges, employs symbolic, traditional stories to tell profound truths about the human condition.

Dupont has been called a magical realist; I prefer to think of him as an illusionist – which is, after all, what all artists are. So there’s ‘A dead woman acting as a welcoming committee for a funeral home’: old Ma Lamontagne, ‘the grandmother who just won’t die’, but who died in 1933, just as Hitler became Chancellor (the novel is punctuated by momentous historical events). She continues to function for several more decades, until she leaves to join a community of nuns of equally liminal mortality. In the world of this novel this ‘living death’ is no stranger than anything else that’s narrated here or in any work of fiction. It’s a story with its own internal logic. ‘Who better to reassure a grieving family than someone who had passed to the other side herself?’ our narrator blithely, ingenuously asks – and this seems perfectly reasonable.

It’s invidious to try to summarise the plot: it spans much of the twentieth century, and takes in the traumas of two world wars: Dachau, the Russian incursion into Nazi East Prussia and Germany and the exodus and desperate plight of refugees ahead of them; the modern era of fast-food restaurants and TV celebrity journalists. It’s set in Quebec province, New York City, Berlin, Rome and elsewhere, for each character is on a quest away from the tedium of home in search of fulfilment, and many of them need to find each other to answer their existential questions. The final scenes round things off in ways that take the breath away, and show that every sentence that’s filled the previous 600 pages is an essential, meticulously placed element in the overall structure.

I’ll finish by showing that Dupont isn’t just a novelist who enthrals with narrative virtuosity (which he does); he turns out some beautiful prose; this is Solange, who’s secretly in love with her neighbour, Madeleine, the little girl at the novel’s opening now grown up – their story is at the heart of the novel – and they’re waiting to change buses en route from Canada to New York where Madeleine intends to abort the child whose father’s identity is one of the many mysteries of the novel. Madeleine has confided to her friend that she’s tired and scared; asked what of, she replies: ‘“Of finding myself all alone without you.”’

Upon hearing those words, Solange felt the bones in her ribcage open and a vibration that first stirred in her perineum ran up right through her, rocking her very foundations and rising up heavenward and through her lungs, pharynx, vocal cords, and nasal cavities to leave the back of her head trembling. The sound she produced was pure and clear, carried forth by the words “I will never leave you,” which resounded through the bus station the way the song of an angel will one day burst forth into the world God promised to his followers. It could well have been the moment, in all her life, that Solange was at her most lucid, her most beautiful too.

This novel warms the heart.

I can’t finish without a word of praise to the translator. Peter McCambridge has produced that rarity — a translation that doesn’t sound like one.

 Thanks to the publishers for sending an ARC.

QC Fiction’s first publication was Dupont’s 2016 novel Life in the Court of Matane, reviewed by Joseph Schreiber at Numéro Cinq (now sadly defunct, but archive materials are still accessible).

Other QC titles I’ve discussed before are:

David Clerson, Brothers

Pierre-Luc Landry, Listening for Jupiter

The story collection I Never Talk About It: posts here and here

Mélissa Verreault, Behind the Eyes We Meet

Letters and pigeons: Behind the Eyes We Meet, Mélissa Verreault

Who writes letters any more? It’s a pity so many of us don’t. An inherited box of letters provides the McGuffin for this novel. No one nowadays will be able to reconstruct a history and be transformed as a consequence, as the central characters do in Behind the Eyes We Meet, by accessing emails. They’d have been deleted anyway, and the technology is uncongenial, impersonal.

Behind the Eyes We MeetThe structure of the novel is risky, but it works. It features two love stories and a war, arranged in three sections: the first and last are set in present day Montreal, where twenty-something Manue (short for Emmanuelle) and Italian-Canadian Fabio tentatively begin a relationship that is destined to change her life (and his); after an earlier, typically unsatisfactory sexual encounter with a stranger she met in the street, the narrator, ventriloquising her thoughts, concludes:

The truth was that she was fed up with casual flings, dead-end relationships, tense mother/daughter clashes, and ludicrous misadventures.

Her reputation preceded her: her life as a continuous string of unlikely events and impossible stories…But what served as a fascinating diversion to others was quickly becoming tedious to the protagonist. Manue dreamed of a boring life with a suburban routine. Just to know what it felt like to be someone ordinary and predictable.

This passage demonstrates the strengths and weaknesses of the novelist’s technique: there’s just a little too much exposition and explanation (and I omitted a sentence). Maybe the narrative could have been leaner, and the writer could have trusted her readers to figure out for themselves the nature of the characters through their actions and dialogue.

Where she does that, Verreault does a fine job. The premise is good: Manue is adrift largely because she’s discovered a shattering secret about her family, revealed under pressure by her mother. This changes her perception of her own identity, and explains why she feels so lost and bereft.

The middle third is a harrowing account of the brutal treatment of Italian prisoners of war in Russia during World War II. Sergio, whose love letters to his sweetheart from a TB sanatorium had opened the novel, is now revealed as the young man who wrote them. This is one of the most painful descriptions of war’s cruelties and the suffering human beings can inflict on each other that I’ve ever read. Its contrast with the light romantic tragi-comic opening couldn’t be starker.

The final third skilfully draws all these various threads of narrative together with a highly serious moral purpose, and reveals the way Fabio and Manue’s struggle to find their way resembles that of Sergio and his desperately courageous will to survive. Without that box of his and Luisa’s letters, that generate and reveal these interwoven narratives and voices, there would have been a different, sadder story.

Through these letters we learn the connections between Fabio in Montreal and Sergio, the young, traumatised soldier. When Fabio returns to his home town in Italy for a funeral, he realises he’s now deracinated: he could never return to his native land – it has nothing now for him. But he’s also never going to be fully integrated into what will always be for him a foreign country; he rejects Italy, where they take care of their dead, preferring to take his chances in Canada, which ‘takes care of its living’.

Ms Verreault has some pertinent and timely insights, arising from such narrative developments, about immigrants and integration in modern multi-cultural western society.

Manue acts as the bridge for Fabio between their two cultures, and provides the completeness he craves. He fulfils a similar function for her. And Sergio’s older love for his Luisa mirrors this relationship. The symmetry of the novel is one of its most pleasing aspects, and the fractures in the narrative – that three-part structure – serve it well.

Having found that opening section a little over-long, with a few too many self-consciously quirky details (the lost goldfish is irksome), I found by the end that I was deeply involved with these characters’ lives and travails, and found myself welling up at the end – something that doesn’t often happen when I read a book.

There are some thoughtful asides and reflections throughout the narrative, that compensate for that forced zaniness – we hear too much about Manue’s ‘weird ideas and eccentric projects’; but as I look again at the text I see that such moments are counterpointed by perceptions Manue is shown capable of. Here’s an example where she’s with her slutty, shallow friend Serena, who’s just ridiculed Manue’s latest eccentricity, and we are given one of those free indirect thoughts of hers:

[Serena] didn’t realize they [these ideas and projects] were Manue’s way of channeling her existential angst and fending off madness. Emmanuelle sought to counteract life’s inconsistencies with her harebrained schemes. Wasn’t fighting folly with folly the best way to accept the fact that we have no control over our lives?

Once again there are perhaps just a few too many words there, but the central point is germane to the whole novel. What starts like a frothy romance turns into something much more serious and substantial, and the novel has some original and stirring revelations about the human condition, and a moving depiction of redemption and reconciliation emerging out of deep suffering.

Here’s an example of what I mean. It’s in the central section where Sergio endures gruesome hardship at the hands of his callous Russian captors. He’s one of a small group of Italians in a prisoner body of several nationalities; they’re being force-marched huge distances in viciously cold weather, starved and physically and psychologically tortured:

They sought to help and encourage each other, to fan the desire to cling to life. As the men lived without news of their loved ones for months, the Italians turned to each other, the only family they had.

Feeling this sense of fraternity when all faith has been lost is the only thing that can reconcile a being with his humanity.

Shortly after this a compatriot of his goes crazy in the face of these terrible ordeals, and starts reciting Dante:

Remolo had clearly lost his head, thinking poetry could be his saviour. He was wrong. Poetry has never delivered anyone from suffering. At best, it works to illustrate the latter brilliantly; more often, it hastens the damnation of the troubled souls it sustains.

One of the most interesting aspects of the novel is the adept handling of the narrative voice in such passages. The narrative focus there is on Sergio, who goes on to admit to himself that he envies Remolo’s capacity to find solace in the beauty of the words; the only verses Sergio knew by heart were a nonsense nursery rhyme – a recollection that takes him back, in a Proustian moment, to his home and his much-loved mother and family. By enabling the narrator to articulate such conflicting thoughts and emotions, filtered through the observing, sympathetic narrator’s sensibility, Verreault captures perfectly the ways in which we internalise and process our experiences and learn from them.

Pigeons, oddly enough, provide a leitmotif. It’s on marvelling at their homing skill, during a flashback from the war to his childhood, that Sergio has an epiphany:

One day he hoped to find such certainty, to feel without a doubt and in the deepest parts of himself that he had taken the right path, the just path – the way to an inner self.

I hope my quotations from the text have demonstrated not only the strengths of this novel, but also the deftness of the translation by Arielle Aaronson. Her sureness of touch contributes enormously to the satisfaction found in reading it.

The significance of the title emerges when it appears in this passage:

Everyone has an incredible story to tell. There’s no such thing as a straightforward life. We tend to think that some people’s lives aren’t the least bit interesting. But only because we know nothing of their family quarrels, their heartbreaks, their incurable illnesses, their sudden departures, their lost children, their devastating fires, their squandered fortunes, the noose around their necks. No more than we can know of the great joys that accompany those seemingly satisfied smiles.

We’ll never understand all the impossible things that lie behind the eyes we meet.

I’m sure most readers will be moved by this powerful, original novel – provided they can get over the foibles in the first section.

Behind the Eyes We Meet: Mélissa Verreault. QC Fiction, Montréal. Published Nov. 15, 2017. Advanced reading copy, provided by the publisher. Release date 15 November 2017

I’ve reviewed several  titles now from the interesting and innovative publisher QC Fiction:

David Clerson, Brothers

Pierre-Luc Landry, Listening for Jupiter

I Never Talk About It, a collection of short stories; second post on it HERE

 

 

 

 

Literature is the opposite of peace: I Never Talk About it, Pt 2

A character says in the story ‘Couch’: ‘Life isn’t supposed to hurt all the time.’

My previous post gave an introduction/background to this collection of 37 very short stories by two authors, but translated by 37 different translators. The identity and method of each one isn’t revealed until you’ve had time to absorb the story.

Last time I mentioned a central theme in many of them: talking or not talking – ‘In the end I didn’t talk about it’, says the speaker in ‘Cupcakes’, avoiding the tragic subject that fills the room. ‘There’s no point talking about it’, says the voice in ‘Trolls’, this time about the love and death of a much-loved grandmother.

The first story, ‘Olives’, translated by Anglo-Australian literary reviewer Tony Malone (I recommend his site – Tony’s Reading List for its coverage of translated literature; this is his first effort at translation – brave chap!) opens with the words that give this anthology its title.

Véronique-Côté

Photo of one of the two authors of the story collection, Véronique Côté, by Maude Chavin, from the QC Fiction website

Several stories start with this cryptic kind of reference – you have to read on to find out what the ‘it’ is and who the ‘I’ is who refuses to talk about ‘it’. It turns out to be a particular kind of obsession, and this is a feature in several of the stories. The speaker/monologuist (for these were all originally promenade theatrical monologues performed in the streets of Quebec City) is presumably female, for she mentions one or two personal female-specific details (the gender/identity of the speakers in most stories is not usually identifiable; it’s what they say that matters). She’s conflicted about her obsession, which she denies is OCD, and insists ‘I’m normal, I think’ – not entirely convincing. She claims to be adept at concealing it. In paragraph one she says:

It’s humiliating, totally. I don’t want the people I love to notice, I don’t know how I’d be able to go on afterwards.

Later: ‘It disturbs me.’

This confusion, desire to be different or complete, inability to fit in, to understand herself or others, is a recurring feature in these stories. That’s why talking – or not talking – about such things is so crucial, and features so often in them. For what do we talk about when we talk about, or don’t talk about, our anxieties, obsessions, relationships?

Her parents, she believes, should have taught her one thing in life:

 that nothing is missing. Like Buddha, or a monk, or a poem would say, nothing is missing, life has absolutely everything, everything is here, I mean: I’ve never wanted for anything, why am I so scared that all that might change?

The translator here adopts the stream-of-consciousness style that of most of the other stories here, choosing to render what he calls ‘essentially a spoken text’ at a level that’s not ‘too high’ in register and tone (I talked about this at greater length in my previous post). He tries to get the ‘voice’ as close to the original French as possible. I think he’s done a pretty good job. That voice shows pain, regret and longing, and a strong desire to feel impenitent, less ‘scared’ – how many of us haven’t felt that way before? The run-on sentences and comma splices represent the rhythms of the voice of a character who’s floundering, hurting, and trying to limit the damage of life’s experiences.

So who is she addressing here, if she ‘doesn’t talk about it’? The reader. Which positions them in the role of confessor – a highly privileged one, but demanding (and in most cases in this collection, rewarding). For we don’t have the capacity to absolve or forgive (if this is needed). All we can do is try to understand. Which is surely one of the main reasons we read? To broaden and deepen our understanding of human nature.

Steve Gagnon

The other author, Steve Gagnon, attributed to France-Larochelle, from the QC Fiction website

Not all of the stories do this; some are lighter, humorous, lubricious – there’s some pretty graphic sex and talk about sex – or downright revolting; I found the story about a person whose obsession is eating their own snot pretty hard to stomach. And there’s quite a lot of vomiting going on.

But mostly these are wonderful snapshots that reveal a whole life of a spectrum of individual types, from the panic-stricken, the defeated and the ‘social misfit’ to the woman who appears to have everything, but has really ‘passed myself by’.  Often there’s an auspicious or disastrous epiphany. Translators talk about the polish and elegance of the prose of their originals, and mostly they reproduce this skilfully in their renditions.

It’s always difficult to convey the feel of a story collection in a brief post – especially a collection with so many variables (authors, translators). So I’ll just pick out a couple of my favourites.

Children’s fraught relationships with parents or other family members, some of whom die, walk out or become estranged, are the basis of some of the strongest, subtlest stories. Often their love for each other goes unacknowledged, unexpressed, or talked about with honesty too late – and this can be ‘sad’ and ‘a shame’ (from ‘Attic’, in which a mother’s curt, posthumously delivered postcard brings a kind of confirmation but not consolation).

In ‘Wrestling’ the speaker reflects fondly on his (I think this a ‘he’) loving ‘fights’ with his dad when he was a kid. Language, words, talk are again the point here:

I never needed words to say that I loved him, and he never needed them either, we had other ways…My dad and me, we don’t wrestle any more. [My ellipsis]

And he misses these fights, which arose not out of ‘rage’ but love, pride and admiration:

I never talked about this with my dad. Probably because we never managed to develop a common language, we never got used to the fact that there were words between us.

I Never Talk About ItWhat a wonderful sentence that last one is. And his closing words to the story bring a surprising shift in emotional tone. Language brings us together, but it can also keep us apart. This is another deeply moving monologue, honest and raw.

Daniel Grenier, who translated this story, has one of the 37 translators’ most interesting and revealing explanations for his approach to his task. He says it’s ‘destabilizing’ to translate in a language that is not your own:

To understand something is quite different from saying it, or even repeating it…English…is so subtle, so difficult, it’s as difficult and hard as a diamond. [My ellipsis]

‘Light’ is a tender, passionate account of a parent’s fear when contemplating their child’s vulnerability, and the powerful need to protect them, to tell them not to give up (the woman in ‘Olives’ could do with a parent like that).

In ‘Nightmares’ there’s another parental bereavement, and the child’s response is beautifully, poetically conveyed in the translated prose.

‘Dishes’ and ‘Notebook’ deal unsentimentally and innovatively with the notions of reading, writing and humility (‘Hell is being the only person to truly know yourself’).

‘Looks’ is about the impact on a non-academic child of growing up in a bookish family of intellectuals and teachers:

I’m looking for peace. I want peace and literature is the opposite of peace.

I’m out of time. Let me end by just recommending this collection for its unique take on the nature of translation by providing some excellent, brief but powerful stories and some thoughtful, stimulating translators’ insights.

 

Do we use semi-colons when we speak? I Never Talk About It: pt 1

I Never Talk About It: QC Fiction, 2017.  First published in 2012 as Chaque automne j’ai envie de mourir by Les éditions du Septentrion

‘Traduttore, traditore’.

I Never Talk About ItMost books of translated fiction foreground (not surprisingly) the original author; the translator – if they’re even mentioned – will get a tiny credit somewhere near the front, probably not on the front cover.

Quebec-based QC Fiction, an imprint of Baraka Books based in Montreal, was set up last year to do things differently, to publish exciting new Québecois voices with translations that are as original and vibrant as the source texts.

I Never Talk About It, published 1 September, is even more daring and innovative than QC’s usual output: 37 stories written by actor-authors Véronique Côté and Steve Gagnon are presented with no attribution – we can’t tell for sure which author (maybe both?) wrote which story (it’d be easier in French, I suppose, because of the use of gendered nouns, etc.) OK, some stories are clearly narrated by a woman or man, but that doesn’t necessarily signify the gender of the author.

Here it’s the translators who take a more central position. This is what QC say about the project on their website:

This project aims to show there are all kinds of ways to bring across an author’s voice in translation… at least 37 of them! Translators include literary translation students, first-time and up-and-coming literary translators, world-renowned translators who have won major international prizes, some of Montreal’s best writers and translators, a retired high-school French teacher in Ireland, and francophone authors translating into their second language. There are even people in there who (armed only with a dictionary and the priceless ability to write a beautiful sentence) barely speak French.

As Peter McCambridge, fiction editor of the imprint, says in his Introduction, ‘readers want to read faithful translations, don’t they?’ His question raises some familiar if important points about translated literature. What if readers want something more, something like ‘a different sort of artistic creation’? This volume doesn’t exactly provide answers to that question, but it does offer some textual examples (stories) and commentaries on them to provide some implicit suggestions.

So: ‘let’s start a conversation’, he suggests. ‘Let’s talk about the types of translators and translations you’ll come across in this book.’ The anthology’s title is taken from the opening line of the first story, ‘Olives’, translated by Tony Malone (and found again, in the past tense, in ‘Wrestling’, and with other variations in other stories). And talking – or not talking – is a central theme in many of the stories in the collection, another indication, surely, of their origins in oral-theatrical performance.

Every story is only a few pages long, more Flash Fiction than ‘short story’ – and it’s apparent that each translation is a sequence of personal interpretations and decisions, linguistic leaps, deviations or distortions, however well intentioned. How much of their own personality or ‘reading’ of the story is apparent, and how does that affect our own reading of the text?

Each story is translated by a different person, each with their ‘own unique approach.’ Their identity is only revealed after each story, so as not to influence the reader’s experience beforehand; they were invited to apply a single adverb to describe that approach, and to give a brief account to reveal how and why they completed their task.

The stories’ origin as spoken texts – monologues, in fact – is an important factor. The two writers produced their scripts, which were then performed in various locations across Quebec, and the audience followed the performers as they moved across the city. The stories therefore read differently from the usual literary type, and as readers we can’t reproduce the exact experience of the original audience, watching the actor in a particular urban setting .

The translators frequently refer to their attentiveness to ‘voice’, ‘register’, ‘tone’, ‘rhythm’, ‘pace’. They comment on the intimate or ‘confessional’ nature of the narrative voice, of following the ‘spirit’ not the ‘letter’, striving for a ‘fluid’ style, not ‘forced’. Many refer to the difficulties of rendering the original punctuation, which tends to be looser in French – especially in colloquial texts created to be orally delivered, many of them in stream-of-consciousness mode, which doesn’t lend itself easily to conventional written orthographical and syntactic conventions.

Comma splices, run-on sentences: these posed problems for the translators that wouldn’t have been so apparent to the original audiences, listening to the words spoken in the streets of the city. Every punctuation mark in a written text is a function of a different mode and level of discourse from spoken texts. Is there such a thing as a semi-colon in spontaneous speech?

Some translations are, as one might expect, more successful than others when coping with these matters.

Of course it’s a matter of personal taste how you judge this. I found the stories with typographical quirks – text laid out like poems, say – more distracting than exciting. A bit too overtly “edgy”.

I’d like to say more about the content of the stories and the nature of these translations in more detail next time; I find that I’ve gone on too long already. Note the high-register use of the semi-colon there.

Paperback (advance reading copy).

Links to my posts on other QC Fiction texts:

Brothers, by David Clerson

Listening for Jupiter, by Pierre-Luc Landry

 

 

 

 

 

A hallucinated life: David Clerson, ‘Brothers’

Berserkers went into battle, according to some sagas and skaldic poems, wearing pelts of animals (the ‘ber’ element may signify ‘bear’; ‘serk’ is a Germanic term for shirt): they thus took on the ferocity of the beasts metonymically. This concept lies at the heart of David Clerson’s extraordinary novel Brothers.

Brothers cover

Image taken from QC Fiction website

Clerson’s unnamed protagonist, Older Brother, undergoes similar therianthropy in this pulsating narrative. At the novel’s start he and his younger brother scratch a living on a bleak marshland straight out of Kosintsev’s ‘King Lear’, a Tarkovsky dystopia: a post-apocalyptic or pre-modern zone of sterility.

The brothers are deformed: the Older has one arm, his younger sibling has ‘atrophied’, brachial stumps and ‘the face of a pagan angel’.

Their dessicated, moribund mother tells them endless stories ‘of the fearful far away’, and etiologies including their own: she amputated Older’s arm when he was born to create the Younger’s body (as God did Adam for Eve in Genesis). She invents these stories to protect them from unpalatable truths. What those truths might be we can only speculate – that’s one of the mysteries that gives this novel its eerie power. It’s full of dreams – and nightmares.

Her core lesson through these stories lingers with the boys:

‘The world is a cruel place, too cruel to be faced alone.’

The sea-creatures washed up by the ‘Great Tide’, the ocean (that ‘infinite expanse of surging black water, unpredictable and menacing…sealing off their world’), are also deformed, monstrous – a giant dog, bug-eyed cephalapods. The boys construct ‘bone beasts’ from the detritus. They are taunted by neighbouring ‘leech-boys’, reacting to them with ‘a dumb, screeching rage.’ Is this a post-nuclear catastrophe? Or some hellish alternative world? ‘Everything was death.’

I don’t recall reading a novel with such visceral impact. The elemental imagery and saga ferocity are intense. Brothers packs a punch way above its 150-page weight. I don’t normally enjoy ‘fantasy’ genre fiction, but this transcends the genre.

The brothers traverse the estranging sea in a leaky boat to find their ‘dog of a father’ who ‘came from the sea’ – another of mother’s legends; her accounts vary, ‘his lore changing over time and according to the woman’s mood’. Their fraternal odyssey becomes mythic and terrifyingly violent. They are at first ‘still boys but becoming men.’ They are convinced ‘our future is the sea.’

Like St Brendan and his monks, they endure terrifying ordeals on their voyage. Older Brother transforms in a way that seems to confirm his father’s canine nature. Cynanthropy. Starving and emaciated, ‘His body thinned out, the body of a wandering saint, with dried blood encrusted in the hollows of his face, and the cruelty of the world in his belly.’ Brothers becomes an inverted hagiography, a legend of a heroic devil-saint.

Initially more timid than his exuberant younger brother, he gains confidence when isolated. After excruciating experiences with the pig-family who confine him to a dog-kennel, and the transcendent sexual encounter with a grey bitch, he flees and transforms again into a vengeful humanoid beast, with a new-found taste for blood, and a grim resolution to survive whatever the world tests him with.

His growing power and berserker ferocity are signified initially by his wearing the pelt of a drowned dog the boys found washed up on the beach. (There are aspects of Brothers that bring to mind the novel and film My Life as a Dog). This mantle enables him to channel his bestial savagery. When the grey bitch is killed, he takes on her pelt, too: his powers increase. This is White Fang without the sentimentality.

Myths and legends (and other novels) from all times and places resonate throughout the narrative. Apart from ancient Greek epics already alluded to, there are echoes of the Old Testament: the brothers are aptly described early on as ‘children of the valley of Hinnom’ – an alternative name for Gehenna, or Hell. They glimpse other worlds through their father’s imagined eyes:

Worlds of darkness and brutality, untamed worlds, unleashed.

There are flavours of Norse legend. Ravens accompany the older brother in the latter stages of his bloody quest, even appearing to talk to him (or is this part of his hallucination?) and perching on his shoulder, as they did with Odin. The first raven to land on the questing boat is an allusion to the Noah story. As he sails, the brother tells the birds stories of his past:

[B]ut he embellished his tales, telling them the stories his mother had told him, stories in which his younger brother dug tunnels under the hill…a realm of wonders…and sometimes a raven cawed at him in thanks.

When he hunts obsessively for the dark, submarine shape he takes for his father, under ‘the red of a falling sky’, the novel adopts the lyrical weirdness of Moby Dick:

He was getting closer to his dog of a father, like a whale he was going to harpoon…a sharp weapon, forged in steel.

His shape-shifting tendencies are found in shamanic societies from the North American First Nation to eastern Europe and Asia. So is the function of narrative to dramatise creation and growth: it’s a bildungsroman, but Older Brother is a sort of demented Holden Caulfield.

At times it becomes a little muddled. Just what is the Puppet the brothers find washed ashore meant to represent? It becomes a prosthetic arm, a war-weapon and ship’s figurehead, a ‘tribal totem’or Queequeg figure to the Older Brother’s wandering Ishmael; it’s also an obvious Pinocchio substitute. Maybe that’s the point: nothing in the narrative is what it seems.

Such inconsistencies don’t impede the narrative surge. It’s a katabasis story refashioned as surreal folklore, and a classic quest into a dark, nether world, a search for Home and Self and a means of forgetting the past, a demonic redemption song: the brothers (then the Older Brother alone) skirt the shores of their blighted land in their ramshackle boat, endure ordeals and battles that test them beyond endurance. Older Brother undergoes liminal rites that transform him from man to beast and back. Much of the time he’s in a trance-like state; he becomes a seer. Everyone tells tales. Like their mother’s tales, told to her by her mother: ‘songs with a little bit of magic, in a forgotten language – some know the words, but no one knows the meaning.’

His final vision is typically enigmatic, indecipherable, ‘the last rattle of a hallucinated life.’

The novel’s end is the beginning of a new story.

Originally published in French as Frères by Héliotrope in 2013, which won the Grand prix littéraire Archambault the following year, Brothers was translated into lucid, haunting English by the poet Katia Grubisic, and published in 2016 by the independent Quebec subscription imprint QC Fiction, to whom I’m indebted for this review copy.

Excellent reviews by other bloggers:

Tony’s Reading List

Joseph at RoughGhosts who uses a terrific quotation from the text for his title: ‘everything here is dead’…

Stu at Winstonsdad