Readopolis. BookThug (purchase at Amazon.ca) and
Readopolis is a challenging, dispiriting, intellectual novel about reading and (or as) living, and about one reader’s fervent—if largely fantasied—efforts to promote the best of Quebec literature while weeding out the worst. Published in 2008 as Lectodôme by Bertrand Laverdure, recent poet laureate of Montreal, the novel is now available to anglophone readers thanks to a Governor General’s award-winning translation by Oana Avasilichioaei.
A young Montrealer named Ghislain is the central character. He thinks of himself, with a characteristic mixture of depressed futility and imagined grandeur, as Ghislain the reader, for he vets manuscripts for a publishing house. (To make ends meet he also works at a dépanneur, where he reads product packages and interprets his customers’ buying habits.)
More than his livelihood, reading is also both Ghislain’s incessant pastime and his mission. He is a hyper-literate flâneur, scrounging meaning from paper scraps and civic plaques. And he dreams of establishing a new reading culture, where the greatest Quebec writers would be in wide contemporary circulation. He undertakes this in part by committing himself to reading—it’s an interesting question: can one contribute to literary culture simply by private reading?—in part by badgering his friends into reading forgotten fiction, and in part by sustaining a fantasy that his own life is interwoven with the works of his favourite writers. When a parrot appears, oddly, at the window of a Montreal apartment, Ghislain feverishly identifies it as the very bird featured in a 1959 French novel and subsequent film. The parrot, a fiction come to life, emblematizes for him a vital, ever-present literature: one he must sustain through devoted care.
The novel’s form echoes the texture of Ghislain’s omnivorous readerly consciousness by skipping between different genres and texts. Narrative passages are interspliced with dialogue set off as a playscript; lengthy block quotations; lavishly thoughtful emails from Ghislain’s intellectual friend, Courrège; a long episode, involving different characters, set in Chicago; and even an embedded short novel. I often enjoyed these interruptions, because Ghislain is irritatingly self-righteous and tiringly abstract in expression. When his lover slights him by being late for a date, he muses, characteristically, that
controlling time comes under the jurisdiction of an almost political mania, a materialist mania that consists in passing judgment on how days and hours elapse.
. . . [T]ime is not a material but a universal pool of emptiness into which we pour everything that passes through our hands: death, illness, money, intelligence, trust-worthiness, laziness, virtuosity, calm, relaxation, ease, stress, exercise, rejection, complicity, agony, and gratitude. If it’s not a material but a flow of words we try to put in order so as to indicate who we are, then time is a subtle instrument of domination that we brandish when needed in order to establish our power and, consequently, our individualism.
In the playscript dialogues, by contrast, Ghislain’s friends speak in their more casual voices, and tease him refreshingly for his morose high-mindedness.
Ghislain bugged me. I struggled, too, with the novel’s stylistic trait of non-sequitur; Ghislain often jumps from thought to thought in such a way that I couldn’t follow the stream of consciousness or make much meaning across those jumps. And his fantasies of a jubilant new reading culture jarred against his distaste for the manuscripts he reviews. These seem to be uniformly banal, and he comments,
A mediocre manuscript is a soulless pastry left behind in a flimsy stall. Makes me think of the Portuguese pastries sold on the Main, arranged in rows on wooden boards, heaps of flour assembled into indistinguishable bells, shouting their soulless flaky misery to onlookers.
But I celebrate two things in particular about Readopolis: its abundant and occasionally gorgeous use of metaphor, as in the passage just quoted, and its rapturous interlude—presented literally as a footnote to the storyline—of imagining the real-life Montreal literati all coming together to celebrate the international success of a (fictive) new novel. The footnote, itself thousands of words long, names writer after writer. Bertrand Laverdure and Oana Avasilichioaei themselves are there, partying with perhaps two hundred others, including Erín Moure and Nicole Brossard, and, in a fabulous apparition, “the great ancients”: “Ronfard, Aquin, Ferron, Basile, La Rocque, Bessette, and Gabrielle Roy.” Oprah, a devotee of the new novel, provides entertainment at the party. It is a festive portrait of a vibrant literary culture, and for me the novel’s most effective means of making me realize how very much there is that I haven’t yet read.