Sexuality and Identity
- Andre Major (Author)
A Provisional Life. Oberon Press (purchase at Amazon.ca)
- Claire Dé (Author)
Soundless Loves. Exile Editions (purchase at Amazon.ca)
- Louky Bersianik (Author)
The Euguelion. Alter Ego (purchase at Amazon.ca)
Reviewed by Leslie Harlin
Howard Scott’s new translation of Louky Bersianik’s The Euguelion has appeared to deserved acclaim and the Governor General’s Award. L’Euguélionne was first published in 1976 and was at the forefront of feminist literary experimentation. The humor, which is based on no-longer-politically-correct male-bashing, may tire many modern readers, but the work affords an interesting look at feminist literary creation. This tale of the extraterrestrial Euguelion who visits earth in her search for the male of her species updates Montesquieu’s idea that an outsider can most effectively elucidate one’s own culture. Bersianik attempts to look at the sexist culture of earth with the fresh eyes (one happy and one sad) of an alien unconditioned by terrestrial cultural suppositions. The title character informs us of this: "Do you think I would be able to see through any of this if I were human?" This work explores two feminist stylistic questions— "writing the body" à la Hélène Cixous and
sexual difference in language—which remain topics of discussion today.
Writing the female body through l’écriture féminine disrupts so-called patriarchal literary discourse. The Euguelion attempts this disruption partly through a disturbance of narrative linearity, but also through an acknowledgment of feminine perceptions colored by the female characters’ physical existence. Certainly child-bearing and rearing play a great part in this tale. The Euguelion insists upon the basic right of the human female to control her own body through exercising reproductive freedom. Outside control of a woman’s body enslaves her, forces her to have children which will eventually be churned into the war-machine or shackled to the scrub-brush. The alien meets several women of Earth enduring various degrees of claustrophobic confinement. From the outset, this character informs us that there is "only one kind of suffering, only one, and there is nothing comparable to it, and that is not being free to decide one’s own destiny!" The reader follows her through her peregrinations as she comes to understand the inequality of earth’s women, and eventually cries for female uprising.
The Euguelion is an excellent source for the state of feminist studies in 1976 and this work includes detailed discussions of sexual difference and language which are still pertinent today. The visitor to earth puzzles over sexism embedded in the language of the common citizen, from the designation of "Man" for species or "he" for the gender unknown to gender-marked titles for professions and functions. After the alien ensconces herself in a library, she pontificates on the sexist language of the learned in Earth’s history, and is particularly scathing about the language of psychiatry.
This play with language particularly shows the present translator’s capability. This work’s first English translation simply translated the main character’s critique of sexism within the French language and then explained it to the anglophone reader. Scott has taken a different approach and followed the translator’s golden rule: afford the reader of the translation the same literary experience as the reader of the original text. Consequently, Scott’s Euguelion has discussions of linguistic sexism in the English language; in addition, he has given English equivalents to the numerous puns and other language-based witticisms. In his preface, Scott informs us that the translation has been under construction for most of the twenty years since L’Eugélionne’s publication. The labor has paid off with a smooth translation that resolves the challenges in the subject of sexist language.
Claire Dé’s Soundless Loves, written in 1996, is a more recent approach to the destruction of standard language and linearity in narrative. Dé has pared language down to its minimum, to sentence fragments which force the reader to make the mental leaps required to complete the picture she has outlined. At the outset, this staccato style seems obvious, unsubtle, and unsettling: "That first week when. You didn’t. Not once. Love. To me. Nothing." However, one becomes accustomed to the rhythms, and this stylistic device becomes an aspect of the character’s disintegrated mental state, rather than a narrative device drawing attention to the writer.
The main character/first-person narrator recounts the story of her involvement with an unfaithful man, a torturous story due to her complete inability to let go of a partner who seems only to keep her on tenterhooks so that he can have a good meal at the ready. In this short novella we speed through the years of torment, yet the insistence on the narrator’s pain as she wades through depression and obsession give an effective illusion of the passage of time. The character seems to have thought of nothing else across those years but her lover/husband’s maddening infidelity and his refusal to grant her sexual favors.
These two characters encounter a series of names connected to friends, acquaintances, and lovers, yet they themselves are never named. This suggests that the narrator has lost all sense of herself due to this devastating relationship. One could also argue that the lack of names reinforces the age-old quality of a story told so many times before. We need no names since we can surely supply them ourselves from our own experiences vicarious or otherwise.
Soundless Lovesis acceptably translated by Lazer Lenderhendler; an occasional awkward phrase peppers the intentionally jerky movement of the author’s writing. These moments could have been avoided with strict editing. Few such problems spoil Sheila Fischman’s mostly fluid translation of A Provisional Life by André Major. Rather than Lederer’s occasional mistranslations, Fischman’s rare problems typically arise from sticking too closely to the original French syntax; hence: "[S]hortly after they’d entered the narrow apartment that consisted, in addition to a kitchen area he had to walk through to get to the bathroom, of a messy bedroom and a small Arabized living room." Still, Fischman’s work is always precise and almost always fluent.
In A Provisional Life we meet a man who is referred to as "he" throughout the novel. Learning of his wife Denise’s infidelity has made him rethink all aspects of his life. The book opens with his attempt to erase his past by forging a new existence in the Dominican Republic. This new life must be without thought of past or future, it must exist moment-to-moment. However, Denise arrives and spoils the tender equilibrium he has created. He returns to Quebec to see his daughter and to attempt yet another provisional life in the country. The past keeps pecking at him, eventually forcing him to come to terms not only with his adult life, but also with a childhood dominated by a cold grandmother. He realizes in the end that A Provisional Life is impossible. He must confront the "disappointment at his inability to be content with a hermit’s life, which had always struck him as the ultimate recourse, a kind of nirvana that would allow him to survive the extinguishing of any hope." In fact, the provisional life is close to death; it is the opposite of living. Thus, the book is filled with harbingers of death: from a wounded mule in the Dominican Republic through the arrival of Charlie the crow—"prophet of doom"—to the death of close friend Yvan.
A Provisional Life is an interesting look at a man’s desire to live without regret or expectation, but the book’s treatment of female characters is annoying. Most of the protagonist’s human contact is with women and all of them end up in bed with him: surely an impediment to life as a hermit. Denise is a thoroughly disagreeable woman and one wonders how such a harridan can be irresistible to men. The female characters are literary devices created to torment or give hope to the man. Certainly, this male character must come to terms with the women of his past: his grandmother and his wife in particular. He must also learn how to be a father to his adult daughter. One wishes for as careful a treatment of female characters as Major has afforded the creation of his male protagonist.
- A Continuing Dystopia by Leonard Bond
Books reviewed: The Year of the Flood by Margaret Atwood
- An Exorcist's Tale by Pamela Owen
Books reviewed: The Bishop's Man by Linden MacIntyre
- Breathless Poetics in Toronto by Louise Young
Books reviewed: Holding Still For As Long As Possible by Zoe Whittall
- La Polysémie de l'altérité by Jorge Calderón
Books reviewed: Altérité et insularité: relations croisées dans les cultures francophones by Alessandra Ferraro, L'Autre en mémoire by Dominique Laporte, and Practiques d l'ici, altérité et identité dans six romans québécois des années 1989-2002 by Svante Lindberg
- Re-Visioning Crusoe by Linda M. Morra
Books reviewed: Life of Pi by Yann Martel
MLA: Harlin, Leslie. Sexuality and Identity. canlit.ca. Canadian Literature, 8 Dec. 2011. Web. 9 Dec. 2013.
This review originally appeared in Canadian Literature #159 (Winter 1998), Gay and Lesbian Writing in Canadian Literature. (pg. 167 - 169)
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