Difficulty and Revolution

Context N°17

by Douglas Glover

1. Why are some novels more difficult to read than other novels? Why do some authors choose to write difficult books when they could just as easily write so-called well-made books, books that would presumably have a better chance of achieving a wide audience and commercial success? If writing a book, like speaking, is a form of communication, then doesn’t difficulty rather defeat the purpose of writing at all? What is the difference between a difficult book and a well-made book? And how do they both relate to the not-writing of a book, to unwriting, to silence?

I have in mind a particular difficult writer, the late great Hubert Aquin, who came out of silence on 24 October 1929, and went back to silence on 15 March 1977, when he shot himself to death in a courtyard of the Villa Maria Convent in Montreal. A friend of mine used to take a shortcut through the convent to his university classes. That morning he found his usual route cordoned off by police barricades. Imagine this—a scene worthy of the author: the silence of the suicide, hidden from his public by the barricades and uniforms of an alien authority, nevertheless drawing a crowd of titillated voyeurs (and readers) who crane their necks, shake their heads and ask themselves what he meant by turning himself into nothing.

When Aquin died, he left a six-page fragment of a novel which would have been his fifth and which reads in part:

(But I’ve lost the taste for telling stories, and here I am, naked, with an essential, boring nudity. I’ve finished with swaggering, friend, because right now I’m starting my last book. When you read these lines, I’ll already be gone; and if I haven’t hung up already, it’s only a matter of hours or days, because, frankly, I’m in a hurry to betray you. . . . It’s you who are living, reader, and not me, not me any longer! That last sentence couldn’t be less metaphoric.)

The semantic oscillation here between the word “friend” and the word “betray” is vintage Aquin; Aquin is always betraying his friend, the reader, by throwing difficulties in his path. The final difficulty is silence; the last novel runs for six pages and then goes blank (like the famous blank chapter in Tristram Shandy); it is finished but endless; death also is a literary device. And it is typical of the author to retreat backward into the void, which is the source of words, while taunting the reader with the reader’s own impotence. Not only is the reader fucked, he knows he is fucked and hence is, to use Aquin’s own expression, superfucked (archi-fourré).

Aquin, then, wrote five difficult novels, the chief difficulty of the last being its incompleteness. The other four are Prochain épisode (1965), Trou de mémoire (1968), L’Antiphonaire (1969) and Neige noir (1974). These were published in English translations as Prochain Épisode, Blackout, The Antiphonary, and Hamlet’s Twin. Since all the titles are tropes referring to devices within the novels, his Anglo-Canadian publisher’s decision to change Black Snow to Hamlet’s Twin appears as a final act of vandalism perpetrated on the body of the dead author’s text by the Toronto publishing establishment.

Trou de mémoire won a Governor General’s Award in 1969, but the author, true to his Quebec Separatist ideology, rejected it just as in his novels he chose to reject an easy accommodation with the tyranny of the reader. Trou de mémoire is, in part, the story of a drug-addicted Quebec Separatist, also a rapist and murderer. Giving such a novel the Governor General’s Award was the supreme expression of a smugly patronizing federal government; or, to put it another way, Canadian culture is such a bland and bloated sponge that it can even soak up, dilute, and neutralize the poison of the idea of its own annihilation. Had Aquin accepted the award (named, as it is, for the representative of a conquering monarchy), had he decided to acquiesce to the predominately English power structure of this country, he would have been accepting the impotence of his own book. The book says, again in part, We can’t talk; Canada says, Look, Hubert (pronounced Hubert, in the English way, as in filbert or Cuthbert), you difficult boy, we can talk about this. The way of refusal which Aquin chose is the way of increasing difficulty. The book is not just a book, Aquin is saying, it is a crime, an act of self-mutilation, a revolutionary act which completely severs itself from the discourse which preceded it.

Aquin’s refusal of the Governor General’s Award was not atypical of a life that included several such non-dialogues with authority (and should also be looked at in light of Paul-Émile Borduas’s famous Refus global two decades earlier—all art is against the Anglicans of the spirit). In 1964, Aquin was arrested for suspected terrorism, pleaded insanity, was bound over for observation in a mental hospital and finally acquitted. Two years later he tried to move to Switzerland but Swiss police quickly expelled him on the say-so, he believed, of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police. Finally, when the Parti Québécois came into power in Quebec in 1976 by way of the polling booth rather than the sword, Aquin seems to have expected an appointment as deputy minister of culture, an appointment which never came. At his death, he remained an outsider who never made it to the inside even when his party held the reins of government. It was as if, having made the effort to render himself difficult—a man whose favorite alter-ego was the failed and impotent revolutionary—he could no longer make himself fit into a structure he had come to despise even when the structure appeared to promise victory for his ideals. Like Aeneas’s luckless pilot Palinurus, Aquin did not have the stomach for success. Or perhaps, just perhaps, both Aquin and Palinurus had some inkling of the difference between journeying toward Rome and founding the city, the difference between wandering the open sea in search of adventure and planning sewage systems and set-back allowances. The spiritual poverty of the colonized man, that stance, gave Aquin the freedom he needed to attack all totalizing systems—political, philosophical and aesthetic. That freedom gave him what he called, at the last, his “swagger,” his Black Romanticism, the courage and comedy of despair that inform every word he wrote. The paradox of Aquin as author is that out of impotence and disease he made masterpieces of flashing, lapidary prose, that as a failure he was able to write macabre, lewd, violent, hilarious and arrogant novels. This is crucial. Aquin situated himself in the place where writing is impossible and wrote.

2. If writing a novel is impossible, then, naturally, writing the novel becomes the first adventure of the novel. On the opening page of Prochain Épisode, the narrator (who claims to be writing the book) writes:

At heart, only one problem occupies me: how should I set about writing a story . . . ?

Having chosen the path of failed revolution, obscurity, and difficulty, Aquin proceeds to draw the reader’s attention to failed revolution, obscurity, and difficulty as subjects (the impossibility of writing and the impossibility of a successful revolution in Quebec are equivalent in the country of Aquin’s imagination). All subjects (themes, aboutness) are punctuated with irony, i.e. within imaginary quotation marks, because a novel that cannot be written cannot be about anything (just as a revolution that fails is a rebellion, an entirely different thing—hence, on one level, Prochain Épisode is an allegorical account of the Canadian Rebellion of 1837written as a spy thriller set in contemporary Switzerland). Difficulty becomes a controlling metaphor for this and all the rest of Aquin’s novels, what Joyce called an idéemére, an idea repeated so as to define a pattern or form. The form of the novels is difficult, and the novels are about difficulty. The novels, insofar as they are about anything, are about their own impossible forms (just as Wittgenstein says there are no facts except for statements about the rules for the use of language). Aboutness, communication of truth, is constantly denied—first by the Canadian federalist state, second by metaphysics and third by the author who explodes meaning by the proliferation of meanings.

This triple denial is in itself an objective correlative, a complex image of the difficulty Aquin throws in the reader’s path. The denials of Québécois nationalist aspirations, of novel-writing, and of meaning interweave and play leapfrog through the texts. But Aquin gives no clue as to which is primary, which is the so-called referent. Are Quebec nationalist aspirations (denied) a metaphor for the Death of God or the late twentieth century collapse of the eighteenth-century liberation philosophies, or vice versa? As Olympe Ghezzo-Quenum, one of the several narrator-writer-editors of Blackout, writes:

I know that the Fon tribe are inclined . . . to construct interminable systems of analogies between events or between people-systems which are utterly and absolutely impossible to evaluate and which end up explaining everything. In this respect I recognize that my mental processes are those of my race, and that I too often tend to replace reason with a semiological system of some kind. This fact I recognize.

This is typically Aquinesque double-edged humor. For in talking about his native Fon tribe, Olympe (a pedantic French-African pharmacist-revolutionist) is talking about language in general and about writing novels in particular. The artist knows that there is no meaning, that meaning only happens when you put two (or three, or four, etc.) things together. And when you do this, you create a semiological system which runs parallel to other semiological systems, one of which might be the system of so-called reality.

The primary devices of the well-made novel—plot, character, setting and theme—are designed to imitate the structures of this so-called reality. They situate and reassure the reader by promoting verisimilitude, the quality (or illusion) of appearing to be real. By emphasizing the difficulty, or even impossibility, of producing meaning over meaning itself, by piling up alternative but equivalent semiological systems, Aquin obliterates these conventional novelistic devices. To put this another way, a novel is a machine for the production of meaning. A machine has two ways of not working (just as there are two sorts of impossible novels): either you can’t turn it on, in which case the writer is silent, or you can’t stop it, in which case the writer keeps multiplying languages, endlessly and obsessively filling in the blanks with different words. The difficult (now impossible) writer-novel machine is either mutely autistic (or dead) or schizophrenic. Pierre Magnant, the drug-intoxicated, “sexofugal” pharmacist-separatist-rapistmurderer-novelist in Blackout, exclaims: “I am a living, one-man Pentecost.” In The Antiphonary, Christine Forestier writes:

Here begins the book I have pieced together from the documents and fragments in my file. Without title, internal logic, content, or any charm other than that of a kind of untidy truthfulness, this book is composed in the form of an epileptic aura.

And in Prochain Épisode, the unnamed narrator writes:

I am this book from hour to hour and day to day; as long as I don’t commit suicide, I have no intention of stopping. This disorderly book and I, we are the same. This mass of pages is the product of history, an unfinished part of myself and consequently, a flawed witness to the hesitant revolution which I continue to proclaim in the way open to me—institutional delirium.

For Aquin, difficulty resides in substituting the proliferating unsystematic nonstructures of “institutional delirium” for the conventional structures of the well-made novel. But this does not mean his novels are insane, nonsensical, unstructured or impossible to read. The phrase “institutional delirium” is itself a trope, a metaphor for the kind of structure Aquin uses to oppose the structures of the conventional wellmade novel. His novels only appear to be unstructured so long as we apply to them the same criteria for structure as we apply to the well-made novel. In fact, Aquin’s novels do have plots, characters, settings and themes; it’s just that when Aquin uses a conventional novelistic device, he deliberately and relentlessly deforms it in order to prove that he doesn’t need it. In the jargon of the Russian Formalists, Aquin makes things strange.

Aquin’s plots are hyper-melodramatic parodies of plot. A French-Canadian separatist rapes and murders his English girlfriend, then tracks down her sister and rapes her, then changes his name, becomes his own editor, murders his literary double, and commits suicide. A washed-up Montreal actor discovers that his wife is committing incest with her father, ritually murders her (this includes eating parts of her body) on their honeymoon in Norway, and then writes a screenplay about it. Or his plots are otherwise unfinished or mangled. The spy-thriller-within-the-novel of Prochain Épisode never gets written and the incompetent assassin never completes his mission; and in Blackout, the initial (incomplete) text of Pierre Magnant’s novel is misplaced, edited, interrupted, footnoted, abridged, rewritten, and criticized by, not one, but a whole series of editors, lovers, and friends. Most telling of all is Aquin’s use of the repetition as a plot device which destroys plot in general. In Blackout, for example, there are two voyeuristic sex scenes—in the Redfern lab and the Neptune restaurant (the latter is more or less stuck in by one of Magnant’s over-zealous editors)—and two scenes in which Magnant masturbates Joan in public. This repetition of the same event is the antithesis of plot because it denies uni-directional time; it is an anti-plot. “I’m writing,” says Pierre Magnant, “telling a story—my story—telling any old thing . . . and who cares! As long as I say nothing. . . .”

Similarly, by inventing perfect twins, doubles, and doppelgangers (Pierre Magnant and Olympe Ghezzo-Quenum, Joan and Rachel Ruskin, Christine Forestier and Renata Belmissieri), Aquin undermines the conventional notion of literary character. In the imaginary world of the Aquinate, the thoughts of one character will even bleed into the mind of its twin other. Pierre Magnant occasionally lapses into the African reflections of his alterego, Olympe:

Yes, my homeland is no other than these shifting sands which imbed Lagos in its jewel-case of bluffs . . .

just as Christine Forestier in The Antiphonary seems able to recall and write about events which happened to Suzanne Bernatchez-Franconi, who, following Christine’s suicide, reads her manuscript:

Strange, the thing I found most shattering was her allusion to San Mateo and South San Francisco . . . for I myself lived through worse than hell in those peripheral municipalities of San Francisco (San Mateo and S.S.F.) during the trip Albert and I made together in the hope of getting back his two daughters (by his first marriage; he had not seen them for five years). My God!—as Christine would say. . . .

The double is the literary negation of personal identity and the concept of character, just as the repetition of events is the negation of time (causality) and plot. In the novel, these devices wreak havoc with the conventions of verisimilitude, especially when, as Aquin does, the author keeps drawing the reader’s attention to them through pseudo-editorial interpolations. “A creature of words,” writes Pierre Magnant:

I find my thoughts out of puff from trying to catch up with words that escape by whole platoons regardless of verisimilitude and despite a tendency for their stock to drop.

It seems clear that Aquin enjoys mutilating the patterns of verisimilitude; his characters’ Charlie Chaplin-ish deadpan response to the oddities of the novelistic world they find themselves inhabiting, whether they are paranoiacs like Magnant or pedantic editors intent on creating order like Olympe, is a constant source of humour. When Magnant rapes and murders his Anglo lover, Joan, in a McGill University animal research lab, surrounded by shrieking, masturbating monkeys, which he refers to as “predarwinian beasts” and “Rhesus macaques,” one of his editors (probably Olympe) inserts a footnote:

A friend who is somewhat versed in paleontology has drawn to my attention that, according to modern writers, the Rhesus monkey is not to be classed among the Primates. This friend, to whom I showed the passages where P. X. Magnant describes the apes in the Redfern laboratory of McGill University, believes rather that the “voyeur” monkeys mentioned in the MS are probably gibbons (also called Wou-Wou), native to Java or Borneo, or perhaps Tchego chimpanzees which proliferate in Lower Guinea and as far away as Ubangi. The popular name of this African species is Koola-Kamba. . . .

In this manner, Aquin’s characters, who often find themselves in the position of readers of their own impossible novels (which are naturally full of impossible plots and impossible people), try to impose their own mad or parodic logic on the swirling irreality of his texts.

3. Having established this irreality by dynamiting the conceptual and conventional pillars of verisimilitude and inserting their mutilated corpses into his novels as parodies of structure, Aquin builds an alternative structure, his anti-structure, using another set of literary devices: repetition, parallelism, substitution, analogy, allegory, irony, allusion, intertextuality, recurring imagery, puns, jokes, digression, neologism, simile, and metaphor. Of course, these devices are also used in conventional wellmade novels, but there they do not assume the primacy of place they do in a difficult or impossible novel. In a well-made novel, simile is safely confined within the contextualizing bounds of plot, character, setting, and theme. X is like y, without much danger of confusion; it is always understood that x and y are separate entities. Whereas in a difficult novel, an Aquinesque novel, which lacks the contextualizing framework, x may be, or is, y, z, or beta, etc.

In the difficult novel, there is no action in the sense that there is no plot, but there is plenty of action at the level of words, sentences and paragraphs, and this action is always violent, a multi-car pile-up of meaning on the expressway of the page. Aquin’s style is fast and energetic, not because things happen quickly (because, in fact, hardly anything happens), but because new connections are made simultaneously, much as they are in a poem, by the process of semantic dislocation. This phrase “semantic dislocation” comes from Viktor Shklovsky’s pamphlet “Literature and Cinema”:

We live as if coated with rubber. We must recover the world. . . . The purpose of the image is to call an object by a new name. To do this, to make the object an artistic fact, it must be abstracted from among the facts of life. To do this, we must first of all “shake up” things. . . . We must rip things from their ordinary sequence of associations. Things must be turned over like logs in a fire. . . . The poet removes the labels from things. . . . Things rebel, casting off their old names and taking on a new aspect together with their new names. The poet brings about a semantic dislocation, he snatches the concept out of the semantic sequence in which it is usually found and transfers it with the aid of the word (trope) to another meaning-sequence. And now we have a sense of novelty at finding the object in a fresh sequence. This is one of the ways of making things tangible. In the image we have the object, the recollection of its former name, and the associations connected with the new name.

Not only does Aquin dislocate meaning, he also accumulates dislocations. He takes the idea of semantic dislocation and plays with it, runs riot with it, like a child with a hammer pounding everything in sight—hence the apparent “institutional delirium” of his style. If we understand that the phrases “semiological system” and “meaning-sequence” are roughly equivalent, and in turn are equivalent to “discourse,” “language game,” or “level of meaning,” then we can describe Aquin’s anti-structure as the proliferation of levels of meaning (like the energy rings surrounding the nucleus of an atom) followed by an apparently random movement of syntagms (like electrons) from one level to another  (and when an electron moves between orbits, energy is given off as a by-product). Christine Forestier, then, will write sentences such as:

My sadness wipes out everything in its  path: memory, joys, brief ecstasies, other venereal delectations, the preambles, paraphrases, long, supple, declarative caresses, the advances, the indecent fingering.

—dislocating the discourses of sex and language (a favourite Aquinian juxtaposition) by inserting words from one discourse (that of rhetoric) in a series which begins and ends with the other (that of sex). Reading Aquin, in part, becomes a game of identifying and delighting in the interplay of multiple discourses or meaning-levels or semiotic systems or even other books.

On a rudimentary level, we are all familiar with devices of dislocation. It’s not difficult to get the joke when Aquin calls his Montreal pharmaceutical company Leacock, Leacock & French (the twin African pharmaceutical firm is Chaucer, Chaucer, Chaucer & Webb). Or when he coins cracked neologisms—sexofugal, psychovampire effect, pyrophoric, onanomanic, etc. Or inserts crude homophones—turd of honour.

But usually, the disruption is more complex, even if it looks simple. Watching a red truck in the street, the narrator of Prochain Épisode (locked up in an asylum for observation) recalls a similar truck used by separatists to haul away guns stolen from the Mount Royal Armouries. “Bye Bye Fusiliers Mont-Royal” he  writes:

Farewell to arms! This unexpected pun saddens me again: I’m ready to break into tears. All those arms stolen from the enemy, hidden then discovered one by one, all those arms! And me, disarmed for having been armed, disarmed also before the waning sun which  silently effaces itself in Ile Jésus.

Aquin puns on the title of a Hemingway novel (and, in a constant play of intertextuality, on The Lost Weekend, Gone With The Wind, Dark Room, which Magnant’s editor says is a reference to Nabokov’s Chambre Obscure, and two books by Nietzsche, Human All Too Human and Beyond Good And Evil). Then he draws the reader’s attention to the pun. The Russian Formalists called this “laying bare the device—and it’s a technique which Aquin uses over and over; his characters are always writing their own books and commenting reflexively on the process. (In the midst of writing a political speech, Pierre Magnant interjects:

By and large, this opening bothers me a little. . . . The only trouble with this incredible opener is, where to go next? I have to catch the crowd again before the tension drops. My continuation presents certain technical difficulties such as the matter of tone, the volume in decibels and the index of gutturalization.)

The method of demonstrating the device is carried to exaggerated lengths in The Antiphonary where Christine quotes long passages in Latin from real or apocryphal Renaissance works on rhetoric and composition. One chapter begins:

If at this point I take the liberty of using the conventions of secondary and ternary narration, it is because I want to gain time—or rather, catch up in time with what had taken place quite outside the range of my possible knowledge. I don’t know if the Asianists had a name for this type of literary procedure. Perhaps even the ancient Greek rhetors had a term for it? Is it an ellipse? Or (what do I know) an inverted anacluthon?

In a sense, literary theory itself becomes one of the dominant themes of the novels,  and the novels become these wonderful museums of literary technique.

Yet even this observation fails to exhaust the hermeneutic possibilities of Aquin’s little Farewell To Arms trope. For, after laying bare the device, Aquin plays with it; the words “arms,” “disarmed” (two different meanings), and “armed” erupt through the surface of the text and threaten to hijack it away from the narrative flow. The phrase “disarmed for having  been armed” further introduces or intrudes the discourse of autobiography—briefly, Aquin himself is the unnamed narrator of Prochain Épisode just as the unnamed narrator is the incompetent assassin-hero of his spy-thriller manqué; the walls of  identity come tumbling down and we find ourselves in a contradictory universe where everything is different and everything is the same. A word from a secondary meaning sequence (level of meaning, discourse)—the word “arms”—thrusts into the primary meaning sequence, skews the context, and deforms the meaning. This secondary sequence (beginning with a word) burgeons, balloons, and explodes, detaching itself from the basic discourse, pulling free of the given context and creating an independent or equivalent level of meaning which runs parallel to the primary level of meaning. As in the case of similes,  the more disparate the two levels of meaning are, the more powerful, surprising, and violent the effect will be.

This, in microcosm, at the level of the sentence, is precisely the device Aquin uses in the macrocosm as the over-arching structure of his novels. At root it is little more than an obsessive and relentless parallelism.

I side-slip in my memory, just as I side-slipped in my Volvo in the pass through the Mosses. (Prochain Épisode)And I’ll drown myself again in the depths of a warm, rumpled bed, in the burning body of the one who loved me from one dangerous night to another, from the black depth of Lake Geneva to its surface near the sun. (Prochain Épisode)

Laughter rose from the other table as I relaxed after my exhausting race by looking into the inert depth of the lake, by waiting to kill the time of a man whom I knew only by his ability to be someone else. (Prochain Épisode)

Poor Renata, poor me as well, lost here in San Diego, while Renata, all trembling, tried to go on to Chivasso and make herself known to the printer Carlo Zimara. (The Antiphonary)

The parallel structure of the sentences takes the place of the metaphorical connector—transformation occurs at the comma. Apposition implies the identity or equivalence of levels of meaning. Meanings collide, conflict, merge, and diverge in the continuous multi-logic or polyphonic universe of the novel. The intoxicated, violated, epileptic bodies of the characters become the body of the text, the body of Quebec nationalism, and the world. The circuits overload; the novels begin to spiral toward critical mass.

4. Aquin’s novels, then, are anti-novels that prove, to paraphrase Nabokov, the impossibility of novels. By novels, of course, I mean here the well-made novel, that amiable and entertaining offspring of John Locke and bourgeois capitalism. Aquin’s novels are semiological systems that soar above the earth without actually being connected to it—like a hot air balloon without anchors; Aquin consistently severs the safety lines of plot, character, and meaning—defying the expectations of logic and the logic of expectation and commercial rules of thumb. They are crimes against the novel; they are miniature acts of revolution against a Quebec that betrayed herself by not rising to the banner of rebellion in 1837, against Canada, against the capitalist bourgeois reader, against history, and against the whole course of Euro-Western civilization. Addressing  his  French-Canadian double, Pierre Magnant, Olympe Ghezzo-Quenum writes:

No, you are certainly not European, nor Cartesian, nor a rationalist humanitarian, nor a scholastic prototype of homo sapiens or homo decadens; and this is why, by the way, I feel myself to be on the same wavelength as you. You puke on that hateful logic which (as you so remarkably put it in your speech) is “nothing but the professional warp of policemen and judges.”

Just as in Prochain Épisode, the unnamed  narrator complains:

It’s no longer a matter of how to be  original in literature: suddenly I am disillusioned by the question of individual existence.

This last, by the way, is a refutation for those cynics who think of difficulty as the artist’s poor substitute for originality. Aquin rejects the Modernist ideal of originality—along with the fundamental corollary concept of individual identity—just as surely as he rejected the Governor General’s Award. He is not trying to be original just as he is not trying to be a good little Canadian writer; by being difficult, he is simply trying to say what he is trying to say.

Aquin’s difficulty is not a matter of degree; he is writing in a different language—and I don’t mean French. To “read into each book the basic allegory of suffering (female) Quebec whose lover is forced to the violence of rape and murder (terrorism) by the very impotence that marks him as one of the colonized,” as Patricia Merivale instructs us in her essay on Aquin in The Dictionary of Literary Biography, is to miss the point. Labeling French Canadian thinkers like Aquin as mere separatists is a favourite gambit of Anglo-Canadians who want to pigeonhole and dismiss ideas that might prove more difficult to address than periodic Gallic discontent (much like a male chauvinist dealing with premenstrual syndrome). The fact is that French-Canadian intellectuals had to stage a revolution against their own language (the so-called Quiet Revolution of the forties and fifties) before they could gird their loins for battle with the English. (Pierre Magnant rages against both Anglicans and

our protonotaries and our arch-priests. . . . Let us all together curse these official shitters of dead words, consecrated as emollient agents and also as frightful enemies of blasphemy and the curse!)

In so doing, they set an example the rest of the country has failed to follow.

Aquin, who studied philosophy in Paris in the early 1950s, was one of those who broke the semi-feudal/Jesuitical lock of French-Canadian conservativism. For the traditional Québécois, history stopped in 1759 with the Battle of the Plains of Abraham (in Prochain Épisode, Aquin’s narrator writes that his novel is “the continuing gesture of a patriot who waits, in an emptiness outside time, for his chance to take up arms again”); just as for the Anglo-American Loyalist founders of English Canada, history stopped in 1776 with the Declaration of Independence. Both groups chose to step aside from the course of world events and the growth of ideas. Both identified with attitudes of conservation and reaction. Both found a spiritual home in the stuffy, provincial atmosphere of colonial Victorianism.

But that’s the thing: this country has said nothing and written nothing. It has produced neither fairy-tale nor epic that would paint with all the artifice of invention its well-known destiny as a conquered land. My country is and will remain for a long time in the zone of sub-literature and subhistory. At best it will throw up a few sickies like me, out of pure wastefulness, giving them no name. . . . No one writes—except me. Oh, you’ll tell me the protonotaries and clerks of the court are writers too. If so, the doctors who prescribe suppositories are also writers! But I write at the level of pure blasphemy.

The irony is that having risen against the old discourse of conservation (epitomized by the provincial motto Je me souviens), Quebec rejoined a stream of history that is fast drying up, i.e. the etiolate remnant of the eighteenth-century liberation philosophies and modern bourgeois capitalism (epitomized by de Gaulle’s Vive le Quebec libre!, harking back as it does to the French Revolutionary battle cry, Liberté, Égalité, Fraternité). In the worldgame of ideological catch-up, Quebec now stands one step behind what we might call the cutting edge of thought (contemporary western Europe, for example, is trying to disengage itself from the divisive discourse of nationalism), English-Canada, two steps (especially Ontario where God is still not dead, and one of the hot political issues is whether stores should open on Sunday).

For an author in Aquin’s position to write a conventional well-made novel (or to accept a Governor General’s Award) would be an act of political betrayal and intellectual suicide. By betraying the reader, he offers a deeper version of the truth of both the Canadian confederal political system—“Our country is a cumbersome corpse”—and the art of the novel. Instead of verisimilitude (the objective correlative of so-called everyday reality which rests on a conventional and pragmatic theory of meaning), he offers the anarchy of hyper-realism. The book ceases to be a novel and becomes an event. “I am not writing, I am written,” writes the narrator of Prochain Épisode.

An episode is born every time I sit down to write. Every writing session is a singular event in itself, and only forms a novel to the extent that I bind myself to my shattered past. An event of its own, my book writes me.

An event doesn’t mean anything, it only happens. It is sui generis, a thing in itself. Art happens at the infinitely tiny place between unwriting and writing, between, as Aquin writes, “what she is thinking and what she will never say.” Art doesn’t produce a message, it embraces the polyphonic play of messages as its form. Form is its message. What appears to be message is suffused with irony. And the writer is continually drifting backward, backward behind the screen of words, toward silence.


Excerpted from Douglas Glover’s collection of essays, Notes Home from a Prodigal Son (Oberon Press, 1999). 

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