The English Anne Hébert
- Anne Hebert (Author)
Aurélien, Clara, Mademoiselle, and the English Lieutenant. House of Anansi Press (purchase at Amazon.ca)
- Constantina Mitchell (Author) and Paul Raymond Côté (Author)
Shaping the Novel: Textual Interplay in the Fiction of Malraux, Hébert, and Modiano. Berghahn Books (purchase at Amazon.ca)
Reviewed by Leslie Harlin
Readers of English can now find Anne Hébert’s latest work of fiction translated by Sheila Fischman. Aurélien, Clara, Mademoiselle, and the English Lieutenant examines familiar Hébertian themes: isolation, imprisonment, parental influence, as well as the legacy of an absent parent. This spare, haunting story recounts Clara’s rise from infancy to early adolescence and the three people who are her teachers: her father Aurélien, the schoolteacher Mademoiselle, and the English lieutenant.
The short narrative flies over the space of almost fifteen years, first touching down to let us know that Clara’s mother died in childbirth and that Clara is raised alone in the countryside by her father, Aurélien. In her early childhood, Clara learns about the natural world under the tutelage of her silent, but attentive, father. At age ten, Clara begins schooling with Mademoiselle who frenetically imparts all her knowledge before her abrupt death leaves Clara alone again with her father. Mademoiselle bequeathed to her a knowledge of music that connects these two disparate worlds. With the recorder inherited from Mademoiselle, Clara links her father’s world of nature with Mademoiselle’s world of academic learning. Aurélien can scarcely bear the sounds of the outside world when Clara sits on the grass beside the river and improvises music.
The narrative next touches down when Clara is almost fifteen and meets the English Lieutenant who will initiate her into the knowledge of men. Here things grow slightly sinister as the focalization shifts between Clara and the Lieutenant and the reader learns that their thoughts and desires run along divergent paths: "The Lieutenant will not know Clara’s dream, any more than she will know his." Particularly worrisome is the Lieutenant’s turmoil at finding her poised on the threshold between girlhood and womanhood: "Too many little girls who cross the frontier and meet up with the cohort of grown-ups who are huge and without pity. Only little girls . .. can lay claim to the sweetness of the world." This difficulty with female sexuality often expresses itself in Hébert’s work through a female character entering adolescence. Indeed, as he prepares to flee the countryside, we learn of the Lieutenant’s pedophiliac tendencies: "So many hasty departures already in his life. So many little girls adored and then abandoned, amid the blood of the first embrace." Naive Clara rides her bicycle to the Lieutenant’s cabin in order to become his wife, in order to rush into womanhood. The Lieutenant takes her in order to possess a bit of childhood before it disappears.
Fischman gives us a translation that reads very fluently for the most part. As elsewhere, her greatest strength is also her greatest weakness: she sticks to the original French like flypaper. Usually this provides the reader of English with a good sense of Hébert’s quiet, but devastating, poetry. Sometimes, though, there is confusion as when we read: "From the road could be heard now and then the crying of Aurélien’s child." Is the child or the listener on the road? This is followed by: "Aurélien chose to take care by himself of the small creature . . . " The translation would be better served by a little distance from the original French which is neither confusing nor awkward. These sentences appear at the beginning of the work and leave the reader in some despair. However, things improve quickly. There is one additional quibble which I also have with other Fischman translations: when Hébert inserts English into her French text, the translator should let the reader know this with something like a simple "He said in English." Nonetheless, the English version is quietly beautiful.
Hébert’s novels are now enclosed by two short narratives which are, in some senses, mirror images of each other. Aurélien, etc. reminds one of Le Torrent, but with the sexes reversed. Certainly, Aurélien is not the monster that Claudine becomes, but one notes the similarity of Clara raised alone by her father in the countryside and François raised in isolation with his mother. One turning point in Le Torrent, Francois’s indecision and fear when he approaches the road in search of outside human contact, resurfaces in Hébert’s latest narrative. Since encountering Clara, the Lieutenant has been isolated near his cabin, fearing any contact with a world that might give him additional information about the girl. When he must make the trip to town for supplies, he finds that he cannot force himself to walk along the muddy road and he retreats to his cabin.
In my mind’s eye, I can see Côté and Mitchell, authors of Shaping the Novel, underlining this passage. They have written about the Hébertian road symbolism for some time now. In their present work, we read a detailed discussion of the road which begins: "The road, a metaphor for meditation and textual actualization,. . . frequently serves as the stage for dramatic discord." Shaping the Novel discusses Hébert’s L’Enfant chargé de songes, but, as this example shows, the reader should turn to Côté and Mitchell for a general understanding of Hébert’s work.
In Shaping the Novel, the authors show us how three wildly divergent authors— Malraux, Hébert, and Modiano—can be viewed together as exemplars of twentieth-century novelistic self-consciousness. Mitchell and Côté discuss each author separately and show us in admirable detail how the authors have created self-referential works which make the shape of the novel a vital part of the artistic expression. Each section ends rather abruptly; transitions that reinforce the connections between the novelists as well as the unity of the book itself would have helped. The book would have benefited from a conclusion as well. These are minor criticisms given the wealth of information provided.
For the Hébert scholar, the pages devoted to this author are invaluable. Mitchell and Côté use L’Enfant chargé de songes to illustrate how the structure of the novel reinforces its themes. The discussion of the spatial doubling of France/Quebec in the work and the way in which it provides a key to the past is particularly perspicacious, as is the view that Hébert’s novel uses divergent roads in much the same way that Proust used two "ways" to signify antipodal forces and two means of escape. The authors give us a fascinating look at the way Hébert uses references to writing and art, as well as geography, to create character and to reinforce basic themes. They illustrate the textually generative relationship between main character Julien and the artists incorporated into the text. Shaping the Novel draws upon an extensive bibliography and a thorough understanding of how to incorporate critical theory.
One can criticize the ever-present voice of Jung in the discussion of Hébert. When discussing an author who creates characters damaged by imposed societal myths, it is inadvisable to accept as the last word the Jungian assumption that myths are inescapable and archetypal. One can use his ideas to understand the myths, but using such ideas as self-evident truths is a controversial road to follow.
Shaping the Novel remains an important addition to the criticism of Hébert. The work is an incontrovertible source for those studying L’Enfant chargé de songes, but also has value for the general understanding of Hébert. This illuminating look at how the shape of Hébert’s novels reinforces its themes can be applied fruitfully to all of her work.
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MLA: Harlin, Leslie. The English Anne Hébert. canlit.ca. Canadian Literature, 8 Dec. 2011. Web. 21 May 2013.
This review originally appeared in Canadian Literature #158 (Autumn 1998), New Directions. (pg. 145 - 147)
***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.