Sylvie Chaput, Isabelle’s Notebooks. Translated from the French by Peter Vranckx and Daniel Sloate. Guernica Editions, Canada, 2002; 19961
I came across this novel, by an author and in an imprint I’d not heard of, in a charity bookshop last week. As I’ve enjoyed the output of titles by QC Fiction of French Canadian/Québec literature, and I saw from the blurb of its dustjacket that Isabelle’s Notebooks was by a writer based in Québec – I bought it. (I see from their website that Guernica have a highly varied and interesting-looking catalogue.)
I also needed something new for Women In Translation Month; my previous post was my first in August’s #WITMonth initiative hosted at Bibliobio blog: Continents, by the Finnish novelist Anja Snellman.
Set in the troubled British colony of Canada mostly in the 1830s, and ending in 1845, the novel consists of the fictional notebooks of Isabelle Forest, an aspiring artist. Orphaned at a young age she’s brought up by a distinguished professional artist and collector, her uncle Joseph Légaré. As the author’s note informs us at the end of the book, most of the characters and events narrated are based on real life. Chaput uses these fictional notebooks as an entry into a vividly imagined recreation of that turbulent period in the history of Canada, a ‘new country’ struggling for independence, and of Canadian women, engaged in their own struggle against the patriarchy.
There’s a journalistic edge to the style and content that reminded me of Defoe; like his Journal of a Plague Year this novel graphically and memorably conveys the devastation of the city of Québec in 1832 by a cholera epidemic, and later by two terrible fires that take their toll on the narrator’s own household.
I found myself skimming the long central sections, which gave an over-detailed account of the numerous contending political factions, their multitude of key players, and frequent broiling protests of the radical Patriotes and others in their fight for autonomy from their European rulers. These sections showed signs of the meticulous historical research too overtly.
As a British reader I felt ashamed of the brutal repression of the Canadians by my countrymen, and reprisals meted out to these early fighters for freedom from tyranny. The current events in Hong Kong are a reminder of what’s at stake for such people.
More interesting was the representation of Isabelle’s rite of passage into selfhood and her own kind of autonomy: as a girl she becomes interested in drawing and her uncle is pleased to take her on as a pupil. But she quickly concedes that for ‘the fairer sex’ to which she belongs ‘painting remains purely a leisure activity.’
But I strenuously objected to the notion of my serving as a mere ornament. And yet that is precisely what I risked becoming if I simply stopped painting. I had to continue my efforts, even if they were on a modest scale.
Her quest for independent identity is paralleled in her intensifying love for young firebrand patriot Philippe. She falls in love in a romantic impulse of admiration for his heroic, quixotic rebellion. At first his protest is political but it rapidly becomes personal and literary when he defends his first novel against what he sees as ill-informed criticism. Isabelle is intrigued and troubled by his strange novel: a disturbing account of a brutal murder, with a background of alchemy.
And alchemy becomes a key theme in this novel, along with art and painting; a watercolour of Death riding a pale horse by William Blake plays a significant part. It’s one of many striking, enigmatic symbols and images that punctuate and illuminate the narrative.
As Isabelle learns to love and live through Philippe, she’s too soon introduced to the pain and anguish of separation and loss.
There’s a striking image in the final pages involving an artwork and its ability to outlive attempts at erasure. It’s worth persevering with this sometimes ponderous novel for the high points and flashes of originality that depict this love affair’s tempestuous progress and the awakening of the spirited young woman protagonist as a consequence of it, and for images like that closing one. The alchemy I found less compelling.
Sylvie Chaput is an essayist, novelist and translator specialising in literature, art and philosophy; she has translated works by Emerson, Thoreau and Margaret Fuller (from the Guernica Editions website).