Four Québec Novel(la)s
- T. F. Rigelhof (Author)
Badass on a Softail. Goose Lane Editions (purchase at Amazon.ca)
- Daniel Sloate (Translator) and Carole David (Author)
Impala. Guernica Editions (purchase at Amazon.ca)
- Suzanne Jacob (Author) and Luise von Flowtow (Translator)
Maude. Guernica Editions (purchase at Amazon.ca)
- Concetta Principe (Author)
Stained Glass. Guernica Editions (purchase at Amazon.ca)
Reviewed by Dean J. Irvine
Suzanne Jacob’s novella Maude might just carry more in translation than the title of Tennyson’s long poem, Maude: the madness of Jacob’s two central figures, Maude and Bruno, is symptomatically spasmodic. There are no specific allusions, no epigraphs, no geohistorical setting to suggest any link between Jacob and Tennyson. Rather, the peculiar representation of madness in Maude begs comparison with the Victorian poem. Tennyson’s Maud is contemporary with the short-lived school of Spasmodic poetry (in mid-nineteenth-century Britain), which was characterized by its intense pathologies and apparent formless- ness; in brief, the Spasmodics attempted a kind of psychological and formal imitation of madness. The same could be said to describe the subject and form of Jacob’s novella. While the fragmentation of narrative and stream-of-consciousness technique in Maude is historically and aesthetically closer, for instance, to Virginia Woolf ’s To the Lighthouse, the Spasmodic antecedent is still illuminating, though ultimately limited. With a prose style that tends toward painterly abstraction, Maude is, in its aesthetic vision, not at all Victorian but Post-Impressionist.
Jacob’s inquiry into the conditions of Bruno’s and Maude’s madness emerges early in the novella: "The anxiety: are he and Maude crazy, mad? The word mad. She is mad, he is mad." Squatters, living in an abandoned house without windows and painted blue inside and out, Bruno and Maude live on the edge of town and, symbolically, on the edge of madness. Maude is a painter with blue hair, but it is Bruno who paints the house blue; he who sells her paintings and lives off the profits; he who invites a group of anarchistic "party" members to the house. Later, Maude’s previously introjected behaviour erupts into a sudden assault upon one of the women, Paule, whom Maude attacks on the dance floor of a club. Ultimately, however, Maude is less concerned with rising action than with intense psychological motivations and moments. ("You want to finish off an event" the narrator relates, "but the event has already escaped you forever through its transformations.") The identity of the "party" members is revealed only through elliptical and enigmatic dialogue; their madness tends toward discussion and recollection of violent acts (with which they tauntingly provoke Maude and which triggers her repressed tendency to violence). Although these figures are not as psychologically developed as Maude and Bruno, Jacob constructs them all less as characters than as what Robbe-Grillet called presences. All may be figurations of madness in different degrees; even Laurence, the neighbour to whom Bruno sells Maude’s paintings, admits to her own psychological instability (presumably, this is why she is attracted to the paintings). Jacob’s Maude does not resolve questions of madness but rather continually destabilizes the word mad, presenting multiple portraits of madness and their spasmodic transformations.
Concetta Principe’s Stained Glass poses both questions of madness, and, in this novella, questions of faith. In the beginning, these questions take the form of a catechism: "Why Catholic?"
"Because I like to watch sunlight through the stained glass windows of the church."
Excuses really, because who becomes Catholic in the last decade of the twentieth century?
Unless it’s a miracle. Stained Glass follows the growth and decay of a woman named X, an artist and anorexic, whose love for Christophe, a poet and heroin addict, becomes her destructive obsession. Their symbolic appellations "the sign for and the name of Christ himself"— are doppelgÃ¤ngers, ciphers of death. The novella is narrated under the sign of death: "I, the newborn, am already dead, even as I write of the woman you and I will one day be." The narrating I is miraculously born of the death of X and Christophe’s "seven-week fetus" miscarried three years earlier: "I am a miracle: seed of the Holy Spirit grown in the womb of her consciousness." So the I is an avatar of Christ as well: the miracle birth, the death, and the resurrection —though not after three days, but after three years. But why Catholic?
Becoming Catholic during the greatest apostasy of the church in time to witness Armageddon when paradise falls to earth: the reign of peace which is the end of wars in the wake of global death. What are miracles good for?
Perhaps the need for miracles of Catholicism is inspired by the madness of the fin de millennium Joycean nightmare of history from which we are trying to wake: but, as the narrator asks, catechistically, "Was there a miracle?"
The agonized love story in Stained Glass recalls that of the finest Canadian novella of our time, namely, Elizabeth Smart’s By Grand Central Station I Sat Down and Wept. In both novellas we find the narrative of decadence (moral, psychological, and spiritual decline), the historical backdrop of war (World War II for Smart; the Gulf War, Bosnia, Israel, Rwanda for Principe), the Messianic child, the female martyr, and the meditation on what Joyce (in Ulysses) called the "Word known to all men"—love. To illustrate my intertextual point, consider this statement from Principe: "This is the story of the book of a book of a labyrinth of
books. By Grand Central Station was Smart’s first book; and Stained Glass is Principe’s first as well. We can only have faith that Principe (unlike Smart) will sustain her writerly gift and continue to write everyday and imaginary miracles for a fallen, decaying world in which, as the author says in her acknowledgements, "faith is a matter of time."
Like Stained Glass, Carole David’s short novel, Impala, is set in Montréal. The story of an abandoned child—daughter of Costentina Franconero, a lounge singer, and Roberto Guilani, an ex-boxer and later her agent—Impala is the scrapbook narrative Louisa reconstructs from a box of newsclippings and letters and stories. Divided into three parts, Impala presents the three figures whose various stories enable Louisa to piece together her Italian-Canadian genealogy: the first is the story of Angelina, Louisa’s great-aunt; the second the story of her mother as "Connie Francis," singer; the third the story of her father as "Angelo Bisanti," contractor. Angelina’s story begins with a telephone call to report the suicide of Louisa’s mother in prison and ends with Costentina’s last leave from prison and farewell performance, her version of the story of her singing career and life with Louisa and Roberto. Angelina’s story itself mirrors that of both Louisa and Costentina: she is abandoned by her parents and by the father of her child. Angelina becomes a surrogate mother to Louisa, a role that fills the gap created when Angelina gave her own baby up for adoption. Angelina is compelled to take this maternal role, as Costentina’s story reveals, for although Costentina avoids losing Louisa to abortion and later to adoption despite Roberto’s wishes she too ends up abandoning her own child, though unwillingly, at the moment she confesses to a murder which her husband actually commits. In prison, Connie Francis, singer, reverts to Costentina Franconero; but her imprisonment entails not only the loss of her maternal identity but also another source of self, that is, the loss of her voice. Roberto’s story is one of post facto rationalization and reconciliation—as Angelo Bisanti; but his absence from Louisa’s childhood and betrayal of her mother can neither be filled nor made amends by telling his version. Louisa’s anger at Roberto drives her to take on the role of her father, as murderer, and of her mother as prisoner: her story, like her mother’s, is a prison narrative. Louisa’s story is at once a loss (of freedom) and a reclamation (of voice): it is the re-living and re-telling of the mother’s story in the daughter’s voice.
After reading the three Guernica novels, all by women, T. F. Rigelhof’s novel Badass on a Softail demands a cultural shift, a metaphoric grinding of the gears. Where Principe engenders a miracle child to narrate her novella for a modern age, Rigelhof looks inward to an inner child to narrate his novel for a New Age. Sometimes our ailing (badass) hero David Hoffer’s conscience, sometimes his subconscious, sometimes his flashbacks, sometimes his astral body, Rigelhof’s narrator plays on and on like a classic rock radio station, mixing lyrics into a kind of pop cultural medley from the sixties and seventies. Rigelhof dubs this narrating voice over the news to create a two-track story about biker and video producer David Hoffer and his next-door neighbours in the Laurentians, the Solar Temple cult.
With requisite irony, Rigelhof re-inscribes the clichés that might have led a less aware author to merely reproduce the pop cultural signs of New Age mysticism, classic rock, and journalism. In this sense, Rigelhof’s two-track narrative is always an ironic counter-inscription of cultural clichés. Badass on a Softail penetrates popular, sensationalized representations of biker and New Age cultures in the news media and reveals the economic exchanges and social relations that constitute such cultural formations. In their press release Rigelhof’s publisher describes Badass as a "black satire," and I would agree insofar as the dark, satiric irony with which the author continually renders cultural clichés and with which he ultimately ends the novel subverts our culturally conditioned expectations and urges us to alter our readings of popular culture(s).
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MLA: Irvine, Dean J. Four Québec Novel(la)s. canlit.ca. Canadian Literature, 8 Dec. 2011. Web. 20 June 2013.
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