Suzanne. Coach House Books and
Madame Victoria. Éditions Alto
In this data-driven age, when branches of our family trees are unfurled with a perfunctory mouth swab or Internet search, it is hard to believe that there is anything about our past that can’t be known. Nonetheless, genealogical mysteries lie at the heart of two recent books from Quebec, Anaïs Barbeau-Lavalette’s Suzanne (translated by Rhonda Mullins) and Catherine Leroux’s Madame Victoria (translated by Lazer Lederhendler). Their concern with history—and in particular, women’s history—speaks to a more general trend in contemporary writing from Quebec.
In Suzanne, the author goes in search of her grandmother, Suzanne Meloche, the “ghost” who inexplicably abandoned the author’s mother in early childhood. Prior to her granddaughter’s intervention, Meloche was barely remembered as a bit player in the mid-century avant-garde movement Les Automatistes, a revolutionary group that included towering artists like Paul-Émile Borduas and Jean-Paul Riopelle. Spurred by the personal drive to understand a grandmother’s desertion, Suzanne simultaneously restores Meloche to the centre of a cultural history from which she has been largely excluded: its most exciting passages take place in the smoky Montreal bars and living rooms where her circle of bohemian artists is literally making history. In the process of telling the story, Barbeau-Lavalette comes to sympathize with this fiercely iconoclastic woman who sacrificed everything for artistic freedom, but whose aspirations were ultimately eclipsed by her male-dominated milieu.
Meloche’s peripatetic life is evoked in a series of vignettes, many less than a page in length, that span eighty-five years of history. The other notable formal aspect of Suzanne is that it is written entirely in the second person, a dreaded rhetorical choice that, in less capable hands, might have steered the book into melodramatic terrain. Here, however, brisk sentences and an imagistic sparseness avoid sentimentality, while finely honed metaphors and synecdoche conjure details out of the shroud of biographical mystery. Playing a forbidden piano, the eight-year-old Meloche “grab[s] notes by the fistful”; at school, she enjoys “the steep slope of anonymous necks.” The economical prose is a fitting match for a woman whose life was characterized by emotional withholding.
Suzanne was a smash success in its original French (one online magazine called it “the literary event of 2015”), and will hopefully receive more attention in English translation now that it is a contender in Canada Reads 2019. Anglophone readers will not only benefit from its insight into a culturally transformative period in Quebec, but will moreover see aesthetic and thematic continuities with other contemporary writers who blur the line between fact and fiction and examine the sacrifices of motherhood (including Sheila Heti, Rachel Cusk, and Elena Ferrante).
Catherine Leroux’s Madame Victoria is also concerned with a woman whose story has been lost to history, although the answers she finds are wholly derived from her imagination. Inspired by the true case of an unidentified skeleton (dubbed “Madame Victoria”) that was found in the woods near Montreal’s Royal Victoria Hospital in 2001, Leroux—in a series of twelve sketches or “variations”, as she calls them—invents the different lives that might have led to the same grim conclusion. Leroux wields this conceit to great effect: because the end of the story is known, we can only watch idly as the various Victorias hurtle to their demise. In the spirit of Leonard Cohen’s “Who By Fire,” one wonders at the outset how each precipitating incident—the death of a child, a wayward medical experiment, a time-travel escapade—will lead to Victoria’s doom.
The wide range in time period and genre, along with the motifs that recur across stories, have earned Madame Victoria comparisons to David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas. The problem with Madame Victoria is that it sacrifices depth to breadth, both in the book as a whole and within each individual story: where Cloud Atlas succeeds because of its meticulous worldbuilding, Madame Victoria falters for its narrative thinness. The stories with sci-fi elements are particularly beset by telling over showing; in “Victoria Redacted,” where a character is medically transformed into a ghost, we read that the “the following months were divided between grieving and struggling to convince her relations of her existence.” The historical and contemporary stories—in particular, “Victoria Drinks” and “Victoria in Love”—are more successfully drawn and offer incisive commentary on structural inequality in Quebec society; this critical dimension is lacking in the speculative fictions.
Suzanne and Madame Victoria join a slate of historical engagements with Quebec by francophone writers, including Maxime Raymond Bock (Atavismes), Samuel Archibald (Arvida), and Kim Thúy (Ru). While the renaissance of historical fictions has been much discussed, less attention has been paid to the reclamation of women’s narratives in particular. However, the success of books like Ru, Suzanne, and Madame Victoria, alongside recent academic studies like Patricia Smart’s Writing Herself into Being: Quebec Women’s Autobiographical Writings from Marie de l’Incarnation to Nelly Arcan, speaks to a growing interest in rescuing Quebec’s women from anonymity.