- Regine Robin (Author) and Phyllis Aronoff (Translator)
The Wanderer. Alter Ego (purchase at Amazon.ca)
- Diane Schoemperlen (Editor)
Vital Signs: New Women Writers in Canada. Oberon Press (purchase at Amazon.ca)
- M.A.C. Farrant (Author)
What's True, Darling. Polestar Book Publishers (purchase at Amazon.ca)
Reviewed by Dawn Thompson
Vital Signs is an anthology that sets out to prove that short fiction by women, a genre that has an illustrious history with writers such as Alice Munro and Audrey Thomas, is alive and well in Canada. A collection of stories by new writers, it is a bit uneven, but has interesting variety, and some of the stories make one look forward to following the career of their author. Zsuzsi Gartner’s "The Nature of Pure Evil" is a wry, topsy-turvy character-analysis of a woman who gets a kick out of making fake bomb threats. It is an exploration of the difference between insanity, evil and goodness, as the protagonist takes on Christ-like characteristics while her ex-partner is constructed, despite her objections, as evil. Anne Fleming’s "In the Middle of Infinity" is another story worth reading; it takes a feminist approach to the generation gap of political activism between a nineties daughter and her sixties mother. Nadine McKinnis’s "Twenty-two Nights" also deserves mention, especially for the author’s creation of suspenseful imagery.
What’s True, Darling, by M. A. C. Farrant, is another collection of short stories, with just as much variety as Vital Signs, but, as one would expect since all are written by the same author, more consistency. It is a fascinating and sharply witty look at various personas. The collection is divided into two sections: the first set of stories treats celebrities such as Dorothy Parker, Diana Ross, Leonard Cohen and Barbie, examining what they are "really" like. The second set, "Family Baggage," does the same with ordinary people.
The variety is created largely by structural experimentation. For example, some stories in the first sections focus on plot, such as "Starring Lotta Hitchmanova," an ironic look at the construction of celebrity status. Others are simply short vignettes, such as "Blague Mountain," a parody of the Black Mountain poets, through a "raucous gathering of semi-bald, drunken, flannel-shirt wearing cigar smoking women poets whose Anti-Minimalist Manifesto included celebrating the adjective...." Another such vignette, "Virginia was the Hardest," is a one-page report on the narrator’s attempts to stop certain artists and poets from committing suicide.
The second section, "Family Baggage," begins with "Hallowe’en So Far Away," which creates a crossover between the two sections. This is a story about remarkable people—including giants, queens, hunchbacks and witches—who spend their days as car salesmen and bureaucrats, but at home tear off their masks and reveal their true natures; they all look forward to their "one public night so far away." There is also a wonderful series of fairy-tale studies of life with a teenager in "Tales from Wits’ End." Refreshing and bright, What’s True, Darling turns the camera lights up to show the seams between mask and skin.
Those of us who have waited for a translation of Régine Robin’s La Québécoite so that we could share it with anglophone students and colleagues were thrilled to see the publication of The Wanderer, translated by Phyllis Aronoff. Still one of the most brilliant and complex works by a néo-québécoise or minority writer in Québec to date, it is a scathing look at the treatment of minorities in Québec, an exploration of the process of attempting to make oneself at home in a different culture, coming to terms with Jewish identity and the Holocaust, and a decidedly postmodern analysis of cultural history, urban space and language. According to Robin’s afterword, the novel is autobiographical, but on an intellectual or spiritual, rather than factual, level.
The Wanderer is a self-reflexive novel that works on multiple levels. The narrator-protagonist writes about a francophone Ukranian-Jewish woman from Paris who immigrates to Montréal and ends up teaching in English at McGill and writing a novel about an ageing historian of Jewish culture. The novel is divided into three sections corresponding to different neighbourhoods and ethnic communities in Montréal. In each section the writer reconstructs her protagonist, attempting to make her fit in, first in predominantly Jewish Snowdon, then in upwardly mobile Franco-Québécois Outremont, and finally in the multi-ethnic neighbourhood around the Marché Jean-Talon. In each different neighbourhood, she becomes involved with a different man who belongs to that neighbourhood. Through these men, she also seeks identifications with socialist, nationalist and immigrant causes. Each attempt is eventually aborted, and she returns to Paris with the reminder that "WE WOULD NEVER BECOME TRULY QUÉBÉCOIS." However, in the end, she does achieve some measure of belonging. And the attempt itself, the process, promises to alter Quebec’s culture.
The structure of this novel is non-linear and highly complex, as it also works on multiple levels and disrupts both time and space. First, there are the three sections based on neighbourhoods in Montreal. However within these sections, the novel traces the stations of the Paris Metro superimposed on those of Montreal. Prose is interspersed with poetry as well as with lists of street signs, metro stations, business signs, restaurant menus, hockey schedules, television listings and excerpts from history books, which are the protagonist’s attempts to map the city, to fix it in memory. Finally, the narrative also follows an ancient Jewish form of meditation based on association of memories: a "jumping" that employs both free and guided association to liberate the consciousness. Both the narrative and the protagonist trace a repetitive pattern of following one line of memory up to a certain point, losing it, and beginning again at another. The historian tries and fails to keep dates in order, and so experiments with many different possible forms for his 15-week course on Sabbatai Sevi, a false messiah of the seventeenth century, while the protagonist wanders through the city, creating a confusing and fascinating spatial form. She is thus referred to a wandering Jew:
There will be no narrative
no beginning, no middle, no end
Between she, I and you all mixed up,
No chronology, no logic, no lodging.
There will be no story
just barely a plural voice
a crossroads voice
And yet although the novel concludes with her return to Paris, the possibility of some form of belonging is suggested. Just as her memory functions as the wandering Jew, when she gives up the project of "fixing" reality, she finds a form of dwelling in constant movement and transformation: she and one of her potential partners "would only feel completely themselves when walking, crossing the different neighbourhoods." And thus it is specifically in Hebrew that the protagonist finds a sense of belonging, even if that belonging is by nature nomadic. For even as she wanders between the French of France, that of Québec, English, Yiddish and Spanish, she dwells in Hebrew: "you have always lived in a language ... a crossroads language, wandering, mobile, like you, like her." Gradually, Québec will also be transformed by memory. The attempt to fix differences through writing paradoxically leads to the transformation of those differences: "Immigrant words disrupt. They displace, transform work, the very fabric of this fragmented city."
Considering the challenge involved in translating this novel, Phyllis Aronoff has done a remarkable job. Much of the work is based on word-play and homophonic association, and of course some of these effects are lost, as is the poetic rhyme and rhythm of specific lines that are intoned repeatedly throughout the text. Nor does the juxtaposition of French and Québécois accents quite come through. However, Phyllis Aronoff has probably done as well as anyone could, considering that this is essentially a text about the (in)ability and the need "to live in a language, an untranslatable closeness."
- Troubling the Academy by Jeanette Lynes
Books reviewed: Writing the Everyday: Women's Textual Communities in Atlantic Canada by Danielle Fuller
- Breathless Poetics in Toronto by Louise Young
Books reviewed: Holding Still For As Long As Possible by Zoe Whittall
- Theatres of Cruelty by Paul M. Malone
Books reviewed: Somewhere Else by George F. Walker, Lawrence & Holloman by Morris Panych, and The Queens by Normand Chaurette and Linda Gabouriau
- Comparative History and Quebec by Kit Dobson
Books reviewed: The Making of the Nations and Cultures of the New World by Gérard Bouchard, Paul Leduc Browne, and Michelle Weinroth
- Shell-Shocked Species by Dorothy F. Lane
Books reviewed: Unholy Stories by Nora Alleyn and Carole David, Kiss of the Beggar by Pierre L'Abbé, Killing Time by Hank Schachte, and Encounters by Michael Trussler
MLA: Thompson, Dawn. Vital Fictions. canlit.ca. Canadian Literature, 8 Dec. 2011. Web. 18 May 2013.
This review originally appeared in Canadian Literature #168 (Spring 2001), Mostly Drama. (pg. 167 - 169)
***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.