- Sheila Fischman (Translator) and Anne Hebert (Author)
Am I Disturbing You?. House of Anansi Press (purchase at Amazon.ca)
- Sheila Fischman (Translator) and Gaétan Soucy (Author)
The Little Girl Who Was Too Fond of Matches. House of Anansi Press (purchase at Amazon.ca)
Reviewed by Cedric May
Anne Hébert showed little interest in recurrent themes in her writing, or in any thread linking her works back to the poetry of the 1940s and her first prose work Le Torrent (published in 1950 but written earlier). Why should she, in fact? After all, her literary output covered almost sixty years. Sheila Fischman, the excellent translator of Am I Disturbing You?, must have been struck forcibly by the echoes oiHéloïse (1980) in the later work. She translated the 1980 novella, set similarly in a quarter of Paris very familiar to Anne Hébert, in 1982.
Anne Hébert was haunted by lonely, neglected children, unwilling to find a place in an adult world which they reject, and this is an abiding metaphor in her work. Their plight, in the case of Delphine (a name which evokes the fictional world of Richardson and de Sade), is made much more difficult by their refusal to relate to those who contract by accident a kind of responsibility for them. This rejection of human warmth, except on intensely selfish terms, is conveyed by Delphine’s anorexia, a phantom pregnancy, and panicky breath-lessness. Was this story suggested by a fait divers as with Kamouraska and Les Fous de Bassan? It is tempting but ultimately unethical to try to pin down the sources of literary metaphor, particularly with so private a writer. Physical sensation and accompanying états d’âme alternate with prosaic narrative. Anne Hébert recreates in what must have been her last work a familiar aqueous, shadowy world into which occasionally bursts a riot of extreme sensation. In one brief phrase, Anne Hébert gives this story the mythical thrust we long to find articulated, relating Delphine to "Ophelia, Iphigenia, Antigone, and some other diaphanous creatures, doomed to an early death."
The theme of ancestral homes is a common one in the poetry of Anne Hébert, harking back to the seigneurial origins of Québécois society. It is in a grand house of this kind that Gaétan Soucy sets his intriguing fable. It begins with the suicide of the brutally insensitive father of the household who has made a fortune running the family mine (asbestos or nickel, one wonders). He has done nothing to prepare his clever daughter and his half-witted son for life. While the boy tries to work out how to dis pose of his father’s body, the girl, Alice, ventures into the outside world for the first time. The curé beats her, the mines inspector tries to rape her; so much for the representatives of respectable society.
Social structures in decay are paralleled by the decay in the physical surroundings in which the young woman and the boy live out their sorry existence with, for sole companions, an old beggar, a horse, and a frog for a pet. But there is worse to come, and Soucy is the master of slow release, unravelling the complexities of the tale, using the dawning awareness of Alice, the main protagonist, to feed imperfectly the appetite of the reader. The sinister vault in this gothic fairy tale is home to the body of the mother (enclosed in a glass coffin) and to a sequestered sister, chained in the darkness and filth as "Fair Punishment" for suspected implication in the death of the mother. And there is more, each new fact, each new feature of the plot deepening the air of mystery and suspense.
Soucy’s novel appeared in France to great acclaim and its translation is very welcome. It prompted comparisons for the French critics with the work of Samuel Beckett. The obsession with decay and the playful and inventive use of language (superbly translated by Sheila Fischman, again) may appear to justify the comparison. However, the viewpoint, that of a young and passionate narrator, movingly attached to the tenants of the vault and fiercely committed to writing and the power of words, points us to another tradition altogether. The tragic orphan theme in French philosophical writing from Alain-Fournier, Cocteau, Giraudoux and Anouilh to Tournier has its Québécois counterpart supremely in the work of Anne Hébert with Soucy a worthy successor. It corresponds in French society to a sort of delinquency sanctioned by bourgeois society in exchange for strict social conformity in public. I have always thought that in Quebec culture (not just in literature but in the cinema, too), it mirrored the extreme social dislocation resulting from the ultra-rapid modernizing of Quebec in the sixties.
The sweet pain of alienation and its evocation through the related myths of immolated children and seigneurial rooms seems still to be a statement that needs making in Quebec. We salute with the passing of Anne Hébert the one who gave these myths their chilling antecedents.
- Seven Days in Detail by Nathan Whitlock
Books reviewed: A Week of This: A Novel in Seven Days by Nathan Whitlock
- Littérature québécoise by René Briseois
Books reviewed: Ann Hébert, parcours d'une œuvre by Madeleine Ducrocq-Poirier and La littérature québécoise du XXe siècle by Luc Bouvier and Max Roy
- Place au spectacle! by Véronique Trottier
Books reviewed: Mai au bal des prédateurs by Marie-Claire Blais
- Les éclats de la lumière by Laurent Poliquin
Books reviewed: Mon temps d'éternité by Sylvie Maria Filion and Sous la lampe-tempête by Michèle Blanchet
- Unsettled, unsettling by Guy Beauregard
Books reviewed: The Electrical Field by Kerri Sakamoto
MLA: May, Cedric. Childhood Lost. canlit.ca. Canadian Literature, 8 Dec. 2011. Web. 21 May 2013.
This review originally appeared in Canadian Literature #175 (Winter 2002), francophone / anglophone. (pg. 148 - 150)
***Please note that the articles and reviews from the Canadian Literature website (www.canlit.ca) may not be the final versions as they are printed in the journal, as additional editing sometimes takes place between the two versions. If you are quoting from the website, please indicate the date accessed when citing the web version of reviews and articles.