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In Praise of the Margins

It’s not easy to paint a faithful picture of a literature in only a few words. And so, rather than presenting a broad overview of the current Quebec literary scene, I propose to bring to your attention a few recent works that embody the unique character of our “small literature”—small in the sense that it exists on the margins of the French language literary capital (Paris), and of North America, whose lingua franca is, of course, English.

After a long period during which, following the example of many other minority literatures, it consolidated its national identity,  Quebec literature has slowly moved away from collective concerns, and opened itself up to the world. What it has produced bears witness to this fact, attentive as it has been to individual lives and to personal views of the world, views with universal implications. In this regard, the introspective narrative has provided rich opportunities for a number of Quebec writers,  including Nelly Arcan, who took her own life in 2009, leaving behind her a singular literary project. Among the few Quebec writers to embrace autobiographical fiction, Arcan sparked a veritable shock wave with the appearance in 2001 of Putain (Seuil) [Whore, Black Cat, 2002, trans. Bruce Benderson], the lyric tale of a high-end prostitute selling her body while at the same time denouncing her own servility, thanks to the lucid distance from her own alienation she was able to achieve. Inspired by personal experience but in no way a confessional account, Putain is a novel of indignity, a long, dizzying, and uncomfortable litany. The spiralling prose with its obsessive recapitulations and repetitions embodies in its circularity the narrator’s inner void. Exploring the limits of decency, Putain holds up a frightening mirror to our corrupt society, in thrall to its obsession with appearances. A candidate for both the Médicis and Femina prizes, Putain was the first installment in a body of work cut short by the premature disappearance of its author following Folle, À ciel ouvert, and Paradis, Clef en main. 

Nadine Bismuth, another author with an interest in introspection, but in this case more with its codes, created a parody of autobiographical fiction in Scrapbook (Boréal, 2004) [Scrapbook, Mcarthur & Co., 2008, trans. Susan Ouriou], after the resounding success of her collection of short stories, Les gens fidèles ne font pas les nouvelles (Boréal, 1999) [Fidelity Doesn’t Make the News, 2008, Mcarthur & Co., trans. Susan Ouriou]. This critique of the intellectual community confirmed that the author was a master of irony and social satire, and confirmed as well that Quebec writing can embrace a variety of creative approaches. An incisive critic of our current mores, Bismuth has a direct narrative style, with lively turns of phrase and a language that makes effective use of current vernacular. She returned to the genre of the cynical and hyper-realistic short story in Êtes vous mariée à un psychopathe (Borèal, 2009) [Are You Married to a Psychopath?, Mcarthur & Co., 2010, trans. Donald Winkler]. These bittersweet satires attest to the waverings of a slice of Montreal society that is adrift, bored, and uncomprehending, leading a life devoid of any solid ideals. The stories capture in a number of vivid snapshots our contemporary neuroses, and are characterized by a caustic psychological realism.

In a more classic vein, Sylvain Trudel contributed to the widening scope of Quebec literature with a first novel,  Le Souffle de l’harmattan (Quinze, 1986), whose protagonist, an adopted child, feels nowhere at  home, and seeks out an island called Exile in order to be reborn. With this tale of rootlessness, Trudel initiated a body of work with universal  resonance, following up his first publication with the novel Du mercure sous la langue (Les Allusifs, 2001) [Mercury Under My Tongue, Soft Skull Press, 2008, trans. Sheila Fischman], and with a small masterpiece of the short story form, La mer de la tranquillité (Les Allusifs, 2006). This collection of small fables, urban tragedies, and grave confessions makes for a series of gripping human portraits, featuring a critique of religion, and accounts of suicides and murders. The characters, touched by grace, but deeply skeptical, share a quest for the sacred and an anguished rapport with the real world. Childhood fears, adolescent angst, and the fatigue of the elderly, are all passengers on this foundering boat. Prey to the fervor of a conscience that is hypersensitive, Trudel’s protagonists seek a space between heaven and earth, and discover a beauty that transcends their pain. Far from being blindly serene, La mer de la tranquillité  galvanizes and inspires us as do great poems, casting a harsh but radiant light on human nature, its transgressions and its self-deceptions. The poet’s penetrating eye awakens us to ourselves, and transcends the suffering and ennui uncovered by Arcan and Bismuth, creating a meeting place for all human solitudes.

A return to the sources of the imagination

Far from this introspective world, some writers have reconnected with the traditional novel, and placed the imagination front and centre. The astonishing tale teller Nicolas Dickner paved the way in 2005 with his fantastical Nikolski (Alto) [Nikolski, Vintage Canada, 2009, trans. Lazer Lederhandler]. Three mysterious narrators, members of the same family who are unaware of their connection, set out in search of their origins. Their migration takes bizarre turns, with troubling symmetry. An ode to adventure brimming over with inventiveness, Nikolski is a rich and erudite work that is unclassifiable, borrowing elements from the detective novel, the adventure novel, and the road novel. Dickner has created a new kind of cartographic fiction where the places and the itineraries define the characters.  Quebec literature has never spread itself abroad so effectively as with this cosmopolitan book, a kaleidoscope of baroque images, a little literary UFO translated into ten languages. There followed Tarmac (2009), a novel set against an apocalyptic background during the fall of the Berlin Wall, when two adolescents huddle in a bungalow they inhabit as though it were a bunker, and live out an unorthodox love story under the growing threat of an atomic attack. On the cusp between realism and the fantastical, with gravity, humor, and fantasy, Dickner is producing a body of work that is imaginative and urbane.

Other Quebec novelists have also participated in this leaning toward dealing with worlds beyond Quebec—geographical, as well as thematic.  Recently, Kim Thuy made headlines with her novel Ru (Libre expression, 2010) [Ru, Random House of Canada, 2011, trans. Sheila Fischman], which traces the memories of a Vietnamese refugee to Canada. In autumn 2010, Perrine Leblanc also surprised with L’Homme blanc (Quartanier, 2010), a novel that follows in the steps of an escapee from the Gulags of the Soviet Union.

But I would draw attention in particular to the work of Dominique Fortier. Inspired by an imagination with no geographical or temporal boundaries, Fortier dared, in her first novel, to take as her subject the last expedition of the Englishman John Franklin, who set out in search of the North-West Passage in 1845. Du bon usage des étoiles (Alto, 2008) [On the Proper Use of Stars, McClelland & Stewart, 2010, trans. Sheila Fischman], follows the adventures of a band of Englishmen who have the arrogance to believe that they can defy nature. Drawing on the tradition of the nineteenth-century novel, Du bon usage des étoiles gives a chorus of voices precedence over intimate narrative. Committed to shedding light on the observable world from different perspectives, Fortier passes from one narrative voice to another, and succeeds masterfully in creating a novel whose language is classic and elegant, and subtly ironic. The pathetic and tragic quest of these nineteenthcentury Victorians holds up a revealing mirror to our own modern pretensions. Fortier’s second novel, Les Larmes de Saint-Laurent, further explores the omniscient novel with three stories that echo each other in a subtle interplay of correspondences. This triptych tells of the lives of Baptiste Cyparis, sole survivor of the eruption of Pelée Mountain in 1902; the mathematician Edward Love, expert on the earth’s crust; and a present-day Montreal woman walking her dogs on the city’s own mountain. Rich in playful and grave images, learned, and sublime in its poetry, Les Larmes de Saint-Laurent confirms the talent and rigor of a young writer building an impressive body of work.

With her strong and independent voice, and an imagination this time oriented toward the psychological adventure, Catherine Mavrikakis, for her part, has made of  autobiographical fiction a tainted narrative that cries out to be reinvented. Mavrikakis burst on the scene with a radical and angry work, deeply imbued with the colors of America, often black, gray, or mauve, like its polluted sky. Le Ciel de Bay City (Héliotrope, 2008), set in Michigan in the 1970s, tells the story of an adolescent girl fixated on death, who seeks a place for herself in the toxic and sterile void that is America, struggling to survive the burden imposed by the memory of her ancestors exterminated in Auschwitz. Ever since Deuils cannibales et mélancoliques (Trois, 1999), [A Cannibal and Melancholy Mourning, Coach House Books, 2004, trans. Nathalie Stephens], Mavrikakis has been putting the West, and its morbid and amnesiac rapport with history, on trial. With her incendiary writing style, Mavrikakis creates an uncompromising and poisoned narrative, full of rage.

It brings to mind, in fact, the Louis Hamelin who made his own stunning entry with a novel whose title was, appropriately, La rage (Boréal,1989). Since then, this brilliant stylist has set his sights on the great myth of our modern political history: the October Crisis of 1970, which is at the center of La Constellation du Lynx (Boréal, 2010). This ambitious fresco, somewhere between parody, the crime novel, and the epic tale, at times ironic, at times lyrical, gives voice to multiple versions of the story in a truly polyphonic novel, and constitutes a meditation on history as a fabrication that fiction enables us to deconstruct.  Unsettling, the novel penetrates the shroud of silence that has descended over those dramatic events.

Another trenchant novel is emblematic of Quebec’s burgeoning cultural mix,  and its growing interest in the foreign scene. Parfum de poussière (Alto, 2007), Sophie Voillot’s translation from the English of De Niro’s Game (House of Anansi Press, 2006) by the Lebanese-born Canadian Rawi Hage, paints a devastating picture of the Lebanese civil war. Bassam and George are surviving as best as they can, through smuggling and other illegal scams, in a Beirut under siege. Then their paths diverge. Georges goes back to fighting, while Bassam chooses to flee, but is captured and forced into exile. Starting as a war story, the novel mutates into a lyric narrative shot through with dreams and hallucinations. In a sort of fantastical Iliad, Bassam’s deliriums as he wanders through Paris are an apt reflection of the wanderings of a man stripped of his soul, blinded by the dust of the “ten thousand bombs fallen on the city,” a leitmotif  of the novel that communicates well the profligacy and monotony of all wars. This searing tale shunts back and forth between its flesh-and-blood massacres and the call of a decayed sacredness, scattering to the wind in shards of shadow and light what once was human, what now is ash.

Since the last decade, Quebec writers have drawn their strength from their marginal status, capitalizing on a freedom unavailable to the dominant literatures. In this respect, the Quebec literary milieu owes much to the emergence of young publishing houses that have brought their energy to the world of the book. Les Allusifs, founded by Brigitte Bouchard ten years ago, has put together a catalog consisting almost entirely of foreign translations, and makes half of its sales in France. There followed Le Quartanier, founded in 2002 by Éric de Larochellière and Christian Larouche, at first oriented toward experimental poetry, but now also publishing often-daring nonfiction and fiction, including that of Alain Farah, whose powerful Matamore no. 29 appeared in 2008, and that of the talented Hervé Bouchard. French writers also appear in Le Quartanier’s extremely original catalog, which continues to introduce new and exceptional minds to the Quebec literary scene. Then came Marchand de feuilles, directed by Mélanie Vincelette, nurturing young writers publishing innovative and unusual texts. Antoine Tanguay then founded Alto, which has advanced to the forefront of the publishing scene with its emphasis on  works of the imagination. Finally, Héliotrope, a publishing house for experimental writing, and La Pastèque, specializing in graphic novels, are making their own contribution to the vitality of Quebec literature. While “small” in statistical terms, Quebec literature today is free in spirit and turns its marginality to good account. Its determination to take its place in the world market alongside the dominant literatures has made for a close bond between the members of the Quebec literary community. Banking on its own uniqueness, Quebec literature is moving well beyond its own borders.

Translation of “À la faveur de la marge.” Copyright 2011  by Elsa Pépin. By arrangement with the author. Translation copyright 2011 by Donald Winkler. All rights reserved