(a post from guest author Mary Burns)
I chose Anne Hébert’s later novels to accompany me on my recent sail out to the Gulf of St Lawrence because, having read Kamouraska in the 70’s or 80’s, I remembered her as a quintessential Quebec writer. Well, the later novels are another thing altogether, was my first impression. For one, the settings are so different. In Am I Disturbing You? a male narrator tells of how a waif-like woman he finds by a fountain in Paris, and who thinks she is pregnant, seeks refuge in his bed, only refuge, nothing more, and unexpectedly dies there.
In A Suit of Light there are three narrators: a Spanish woman concierge, her construction worker husband, and their son, Miguel, who wishes he were a girl. How bizarre, I thought. Anne Hébert really changed while living in Paris. I considered writing about the influence of place on a writer. But it had been years since I read Kamouraska. Could I really say that? I searched my shelves and found that I still have a copy, published by the old General Publishing PaperJacks imprint in 1974 and selling for $1.75. Imagine an author trying to earn a living on a 10% royalty, less than 20 cents per copy. I don’t think Anne Hébert ever did earn much, despite Kamouraska having been a best seller in four languages, according to the PaperJacks cover, and despite all the awards she garnered during her lifetime. She never married, had no children. According to the introduction Mavis Gallant wrote to the Collected Later Novels (Anansi, 1990), Anne Hébert lived frugally in the same Paris apartment for years, and used it as a reference for the locations she created, particularly in A Suit of Light. In that final work of this unique stylist, the concierge, who dreams of glamour, is always being besieged by tenants who want her to do something about the garbage, the rats, the non-functioning plumbing.
I opened Kamouraska, set in the 1800’s, expecting to find great
sweeps of landscape and clergy in every chapter. But that novel
has the same pressed, passionate, almost breathless style of interior monologue as the two Paris novels I read, and she sustains it. Although Elizabeth d’Aulnieres is certainly affected by the landscape and by the strictures of her time, the narrative is intimate rather than expository. The story of her life-defining act of passion way out on the St. Lawrence unfolds as she keeps a death watch over her second husband, Jérome Rolland. I love the way Hébert’s style so accurately captures the way we think, with scattered thoughts and times interwoven so that Elizabeth’s past is part of her present, i.e. what she is actually doing as M. Rolland weakens. I also love the confidence with which the author switches from third to first person, even within the same paragraph, and it seems to work, though as a long time teacher of creative writing I always advised students not to do that. Too confusing, I preached. I guess that depends on the writer’s skill, and yes, that confidence. Bravo!
In addition to the similarity of style and the tone of restrained hysteria in Kamouraska and A Suit of Light, the characters have similar attributes, notably rebelliousness in the sense that the primary people I encountered, in novels written twenty years or more apart, are battling the status quo. Death is also prominent, perhaps sadder in the last two novels because of who is lost. Or maybe it was Hébert herself thinking ahead. She moved back to Quebec, to Montreal, in the late 90’s. Over 80 by then, she no doubt appreciated the changes that had come to the Province following the quiet rebellion. The Quebec literati of that period and later, would not have been shocked as their predecessors were by Hébert’s daring reflections of Quebec society. Had she been born a few decades later, she might not have felt the need to leave to find artistic freedom. By the time she returned to stay, it was too late. In 2000, the year after A Suit of Light was published in French, Anne Hébert died.