In The Inferno, canto 13, Dante and Virgil arrive at a forest of gnarled, black, poisonous trees containing the tormented souls of suicides, forever sundered from their bodies: “it is not right for any man to have / what he himself has cast aside.” Nearly seven centuries later, Christianity remains unequivocally opposed to self-murder, making the basic premise of Réjean Ducharme’s novel Le nez qui voque (rendered as Miss Take by translator Will Browning) even more provocative within the context of deeply Catholic Quebec in 1967 when it was published.
The sixteen-year-old narrator Miles Miles and his fourteen-year-old friend Chateaugué run away to Montreal and make a suicide pact to avoid having to become adults: “I don’t want to die at the end of my rope, exhausted. I want to die joyful, laughing out loud, vigorous, triumphant.” They live as brother and sister in a rented room across from Notre-Dame-de-Bon-Secours Chapel: “The Virgin Mary, who stands on the roof of the chapel and holds out her arms to the sailors and the longshoremen, turns her back on me.” Shunning and shunned by society, they drift through the days, smoking and drinking until their money runs out.
On the surface, very little happens in this book, yet it is an exhausting read. The relentless wordplay begins with the equivocating title and bullies the reader through to the final, brutal page. Miles Miles is thoroughly unlikeable—manipulative, misogynistic, self-absorbed, and often cruel to Chateaugué, whose only failing is her unswerving loyalty to him. Yet he permits brief glimpses of his inner torment that render him dimly comprehensible: “Something within us is captive and stifling . . . this thing attached within us that suffers like an eagle fastened by its foot to the cement of a sidewalk.” Ultimately, Miles Miles’ self-love is either his salvation or his downfall, depending upon one’s perspective.
Forty-four years after Le nez qui voque won the Governor General’s Award for French fiction, Browning’s is the first English translation, and it is easy to see why: tackling Ducharme’s writing is a Herculean undertaking. Yet Browning aims to translate all nine of Ducharme’s novels, “thereby expanding access to his wonderful, quirky, inventive prose.” He is rendering Canadian literature a unique service by opening Ducharme’s work to anglophone readers.
Montreal, four decades later, is also one of the settings for another book peopled with characters variously adrift. Âmes en peine au paradis perdu (translated by Jonathan Kaplansky as Wandering Souls in Paradise Lost) is the second book in Hélène Rioux’s planned tetralogy, “Fragments of the World.” All of the characters are in some sense “wandering souls at the gates of paradise,” yearning for love they have lost or have never found.
With deft artistry, Rioux interweaves the several storylines that she began in volume 1, Wednesday Night at the End of the World. Each narrative takes place on the spring equinox, and she combines this synchronicity with imagery, echoes, and wordplay to create a multilayered palimpsest effect—traces of material from earlier in the book, or from the first volume, shimmer through at sometimes unexpected moments.
The book does not shy away from the myriad aspects of existence that can leave us feeling betrayed by the spectre of hope. A family is destroyed when the thirteen-year-old daughter runs away and then vanishes. A young woman’s dreams of happiness are annihilated when her lover dies in a car crash. Searing loneliness leaves its scars soul-deep. Life—“Is it just?” the narrator demands.
At the same time, Rioux blends this pathos with lyricism, whimsy, and humour, reminding me of British writer John Lanchester’s view that “life is tragic in structure but comic in texture.” The twelfth chapter encapsulates this perspective. In “Nirvana, at some point in eternity,” we find a bitterly indignant Dante. Heaven, it turns out, admits anyone who “endure[s] forever in the memory of humanity”—meaning that the Marquis de Sade is one of Dante’s eternal compatriots. (But, observes the narrator, “let’s be honest, without a nutcase like the Marquis de Sade, say, eternity would be a tad boring.”) Even worse, Beatrice remains eternally married, and Dante now doubts the existence of God. “You tricked me,” he accuses Virgil. “But I did it,” claims Virgil, “for the cause of poetry.”
Perhaps paradise exists only in our imaginations. But perhaps, as some of the characters claim, “imagination is a form of truth.” In any case, wandering through Rioux’s prose is a delightful way to search for glimpses of paradise, truth or both.