This Yesterday of Today
- Nicole Brossard (Author) and Susanne de Lotbinière-Harwood (Translator)
Yesterday, at the Hotel Clarendon. Coach House Books (purchase at Amazon.ca)
Reviewed by Susan Rudy
Yesterday, at the Hotel Clarendon is Susanne de Lotbinière-Harwood’s wonderfully attentive and generative translation of Nicole Brossard’s Hier. Quintessentially Brossard, the novel pulsates with intellectual women reading, writing, remembering, making love, worrying, thinking, talking, pondering. So poetic and so delightfully feminist, the novel left me wishing “hier” were an English word. Oh for a word that means “yesterday” and looks like “here,” that nestles a little “i” within the word “her.”
Believing “we must be responsible before history, not let it pull us into oblivion,” Simone Lambert runs the new Museum of Civilization. Her granddaughter Axelle Carnavale is a geneticist: “Axelle loves her work. . . . In social situations, [she] claims she enjoys reading. She never says that it allows her to stock up on puns that help time go by when she feels like dying.” Carla Carlson, a Saskatchewan writer, “speaks a beautiful French” and every two years spends a few months in Quebec City completing her novels.
The narrator works for Simone and meets with Carla most nights at the Hotel Clarendon bar: “[w]hile others march gaily toward madness in order to stay alive in a sterile world,” she “strives[s] for preservation.” Set in Quebec City, they meet or recall meeting in bars and hotel rooms, at conferences and over meals, by the sea and on terraces.
Unusually for Brossard, the women’s attention is focused not only on each other but also on absent and silent significant others: Simone’s deceased lover Alice, her estranged daughter Lorraine, and her granddaughter Axelle. (She misses a meeting with Axelle and then meets but doesn’t recognize her.) For both the narrator and Carla, the absent other is a deceased mother.
Brossard inscribed my copy of Hier with the words “Ce ‘hier’ d’aujourd’hui.” “This yesterday of today,” this Hier, is inhabited by the lovers, mothers, daughters who are (with) us though they’ve gone before. “Of today” is their/our speech and conversation:
Axelle: It mustn’t be easy, being a character.
Carla: No. Character, meaning pretending to be real—
Narrator: —and to suffer, but what for?
Axelle: Suffering for real while pretending to suffer adequately.
Carla: Like an actress, then? But an actress isn’t a character. She’s often me.
As this passage demonstrates, while ostensibly a “novel” Yesterday incorporates passages of theatrical script and philosophizing. The structure is more like an unfolding than a proceeding.
The first section, also called “Yesterday,” is the most substantial at 118 pages. The next five sections are much shorter: “The Urns” is ten pages long, “The Hotel Clarendon” 32 pages, “Chapter Five” five pages, “Carla Carlson’s Room” 35 pages, and “Some Notes Found in the Room at the Hotel Clarendon” seven pages long. A hauntingly evocative and erotic single-page poem reappears six times.
The end of the novel is not the end because a rather scholarly appendix translates three pages that appear in Latin (a scripted conversation with Descartes!), the sources of quotations, and the names of the 59 French, British, American, Canadian, nineteenth-century, modernist, and contemporary authors—Genet, Woolf, Melville, Bersianik, Cixous, Proust, Aquin, Rilke, Brossard, Bellefeuille, Barnes and many others—whose texts Carla purchases in Quebec because they “make [her] want to write.”
This book makes you want to read. Read it.
- Living as Spirits by Catherine Rainwater
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- Keep Moving by Russell Morton Brown
Books reviewed: The Law of Dreams by Peter Behrens
- Fictionalizing the Self by Emily Williams
Books reviewed: My Brahmin Days and Other Stories by Cyril Dabydeen, Rio Loa Station of Dreams by Ludwig Zeller, Emil Brut by Izaak Mansk, and The Truth About Love by Patrick Roscoe
- Touching Gods by Andrea Belcham
Books reviewed: Vandal Love by D.Y. Béchard
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Books reviewed: Where She Was Standing by Maggie Helwig and The Path of Totality: New and Selected Stories by Audrey Thomas
MLA: Rudy, Susan. This Yesterday of Today. canlit.ca. Canadian Literature, 8 Dec. 2011. Web. 25 May 2013.
This review originally appeared in Canadian Literature #191 (Winter 2006). (pg. 148 - 149)
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