Deixis / Dreams
- Sheila Fischman (Translator) and Anne Hebert (Author)
A Suit of Light. House of Anansi Press (purchase at Amazon.ca)
- Erin Mouré (Translator), Robert Majzels (Translator), and Nicole Brossard (Author)
Installations (with and without pronouns). Muses' Company (purchase at Amazon.ca)
- Nicole Brossard (Author) and Susanne de Lotbinière-Harwood (Translator)
She Would Be the First Sentence of My Next Novel / Elle serait la première phrase de mon prochain roman. Mercury Press (purchase at Amazon.ca)
Reviewed by Susan Knutson
Anglophone readers of Quebec’s literature, and all who are interested in literary translation, will welcome these significant publications by Nicole Brossard and Anne Hébert. To begin with, the two books by Brossard fit beautifully together, although Installations (avec et sans pronoms) is a much earlier text, first published in 1984 (and the winner of the Grand Prix de Poésie de la Fondation des Forges in 1989). It could not have been easy to translate these poems, evocative and tantalizing as they are, but Erin Mouré and Robert Majzels have done a very credible job. Each poem offers a noun—Country, Comparison, Gesture, Rain, Literature— viewed in a perspective established by the installation of pronouns in relation to it. Thus, "Site" recalls the etymology of deixis as a "pointing finger," while it glosses the central metaphor of installation:
each time I settle [je m’installe]
into a pronoun other than the absolute /
I remove myself from anxiety
pointing a finger
at the changing shape of relations
Or as she puts it elsewhere, "I settle into my body’s installation / so as to be able to respond / when a woman gives me a sign" ("Installation").
Other poems explore the plural "we," projecting possible collective or national consciousnesses (awkward but accurate), which are also located in the immediacy of the deictic order. "Culture," for example, illuminates the kind of collective subjectivity that displays an appetite for superlatives, a characteristic which has made nationalism historically suspect: "we hallucinate huge blockages of affect in the here and now / walking in history works up an appetite / one that growls / like a we that lurks around superlatives." Such poems, appealing to the intellect as much as the emotions, are interspersed with others of a more visceral cast; all are translated lovingly by Mouré and Majzels.
The pronominal play that characterizes Installations is foregrounded and more fully explored in the more recent text, She Would Be the First Sentence of My Next Novel / Elle serait la première phrase de mon prochain roman. The French original and the English translation by Susanne de Lotbinière- Harwood were both copyrighted in 1998, reflecting the close collaboration between author and translator; in her "Notes," Brossard thanks de Lotbinière-Harwood for the translation, from which she has read around the world. This bilingual edition is Brossard’s most substantial theoretical text to appear in English since the publication of The Aerial Letter (translated by Marlene Wildeman) in 1988. She Would Be the First Sentence... is what Brossard describes as a hybrid text, "containing only brief narrative interventions with a poetic resonance." These unfold around the classic motif of women speaking together around a table, with the uncanny difference that each of the women risks identification with "Nicole Brossard." The fiction and the theory work together to decompartmentalize genres, a move "without which the feminine / could not have simultaneously expressed its sensibility, voiced its dissidence and explored the ’blind spots’ of an individual and plural memory." Paradigmatically written "in the feminine," and in part a historical and theoretical reflection on that movement in writing, this text offers a marvelous definition of it, which I will leave readers to discover on their own.
Among the pronominal personae who step in and out of identification with "Nicole Brossard" is one third person "she" who explains herself, or at least, explains her writing, in a singularly clear and discursive manner: ever since the publication of her last novel, Mauve Desert, a book in which she had agreed to more descriptions, where she had taken the time to love her characters, to give them identities and to set them into a landscape, she seemed reconciled with prose or, at the very least, was showing it greater respect. For though she had published six novels, she had always somehow refused the novelistic . . . . She said she couldn’t stand the subject-verb-object routine to which narrative inclined.
Another "Nicole Brossard"—her interlocutor—remains uncompromisingly outside of prose, in the deicitically powerful here and now of the "I":
I am a woman of the present, of the
moment, and this no doubt explains my
reluctance regarding prose. I like to feel
that the world can converge, come
undone and reconstitute itself inside me
in the short while of the poem. I seek that
tension and prose keeps it from me.
Prose dilutes tension, excitement, the
effect of synthesis with which the poem
dazzles us . . .
The dialoging "I" and "she" renegotiate the border between prose, poetry, fiction and reality, summarizing key points of Brossard’s writing theory as it has evolved over the last thirty years.
In Québec, writing in the feminine is characterized by its direct inscription in the modernism of Québec writing, its insertion into problematics of language and of the symbolic. It is a concept in which the intimate " I "and the "we" of belonging gesture to each other and seek to cohabit despite patriarchal meaning that isolates them, the better to invalidate them both.
Since the pronominal positioning is exactly the focus of the writerly exploration, it can hardly remain static; "I" becomes identified with "she" and begins to speak in her name, thus politicizing the scene of writing and creating a public space for a collective consciousness. Such evolutions in the addressor-addressee relationship, the text explains, are acquisitions of feminist consciousness, so it is not surprising that in the fiction, the two women are joined by a feminist and a novelist. All the women listen to the feminist, whose clarity is astonishing.
At the end of the evening, another pronominal construct is born—another writer who renews her vow to live, and to live fully, in the present tense:
As I write, I think about my next novel.
She will be a character, she will astonish
me with every sentence. I will handle the
sentences with care. I will be fierce in
language. Uncompromising. She will be
patient before the world, perfectly desirable
like a heroine. She will be a poet. I
will not give in to life-likeliness
where unhappiness always closes in on
women. I want this she alive.* [*English and italic in the original]
As always, Brossard’s playfulness leads us gently into a most serious consideration of women’s place in a patriarchal culture which damages women’s imaginations, as the feminist has just argued, by sentencing us, "[t]o a certain extent... to elucidating our unbearable posture amid images that reflect our exclusion, our fragmentation." In defiance of this the writerly "I" affirms, "I love to exist ’live.’"
Now Anne Hébert’s book reminds us, and in the most powerful terms, that men’s imaginations are also damaged. Such is the fate of the young hero of her last novel, written and published shortly before her death last year, and translated by Sheila Fischman. He is the one who wears A Suit of Light, and his name is Miguel Almevida. This novel captures the force and poetry of those "holy monsters"—as Brossard terms them—of the Quebec novel, " [which rose up to fuel] passion, identity and imagining: sexuality and language." The young hero, trapped by a family drama that has no place for him, also experiences acculturation as a Spanish immigrant in Paris. For him, the power and shape-shifting force of dream offers a temporary richness of experience which he cannot resist, and his beautiful mother, Rose-Alba, follows him and is also lost to a night world that seems to compensate for the absent colour, heat and intensity of Spain. Both cross the frontier of taboo: he is cross-gendered; she is a whore. It ends badly. The father suffers too, as he struggles in vain for authority over his wife, "my loved one, my sly one . . . setting off on the trail of the ungrateful son we made together one night in Spain at the hour when gardens collapse under their heavy scents." Bereft of the home she had struggled to provide, he is "thrown onto the street, I’m outside my house like a snail without its shell. At the corner café I drink white wine."
On first reading, Hébert provides a narrative closure that carries a message: a warning not to dream, not to change shape, not to cross the line. Many of her readers will find themselves in rebellion against this narrative line, refusing to believe that it is better to remain subservient to that which suffocates them and which will never understand who they are. Like Miguel and Rose-Alba, they will risk all rather than live a non-life. Thus the novel works with irony to arrive at radical and poetic conclusions.
A word about the translations, which are excellent, but do provoke any number of questions. I quibble here and there with de Lotbinière-Harwood; why, for example, do we need life-likeliness to translate vraisem- blance, when the word lifelikeness already exists? I wonder, too, if Fischman eliminates all flavour of French from her translation of Hébert in order to write in a language as lucid and as beautiful as Hébert’s own. Alternatively, is it because the characters are not French but Spanish? The presence of the italicized paterfamilias—a word which actually exists in both French and English—seems to point to the common Latin heritage, source of the patriarchal family structure which fails Miguel and his parents.
- The Natural History of Language and Literature by Rebecca Raglon
Books reviewed: The Tree of Meaning: Thirteen Talks by Robert Bringhurst and Wild Language by Robert Bringhurst
- Petites existences by David Dorais
Books reviewed: Êtes-vous mariée à un psychopathe? by Nadine Bismuth and Jour de chance by Nicolas Charette
- The Point of the Story by Gloria Nne Onyeoziri
Books reviewed: Aphorism in the Francophone Novel of the Twentieth Century by Mark Bell
- Women's (Re)Production by Charmaine Eddy
Books reviewed: Mothering the Race: Women's Narratives of Reproduction, 1890-1930 by Allison Berg, Quilt Stories by Cecilia Macheski, and Weaving the Word: The Metaphorics of Weaving and Female Textual Production by Kathryn Sullivan Kruger
- In Touch with the Land by Bryan N. S. Gooch
Books reviewed: Tom Thomson's Shack by Harold Rhenisch, Summer Gone by David Macfarlane, and The Clouded Leopard: Travels to Landscapes of Spirit and Desire by Wade Davis
MLA: Knutson, Susan. Deixis / Dreams. canlit.ca. Canadian Literature, 8 Dec. 2011. Web. 13 Dec. 2013.
This review originally appeared in Canadian Literature #173 (Summer 2002), (Crawford, Munro, Watson, Atwood, Duncan). (pg. 124 - 127)
***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.