Burden of Dreams

by Anne Hebert, Sheila Fischman,
166 pages,
ISBN: 088784166X

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A Choice of Lovers
by Anne Denoon

ANNE HEBERT WAS BORN in Quebec in 1916, published her first book of poetry in 1942, and has lived mainly in France since the mid-1950s. Her often violent, dramatic psychological novels have generally been interpreted as symbolist or surrealist accounts of the psychic struggle of Quebec in the 20th century that also explore the conflict between Jansenist and Gnostic views of the universe.

Whether such an interpretation can be firmly attached to Hebert's latest novel, Burden of Dreams, which won the Governor General's Award for fiction in French in 1992, is perhaps not within the province (so to speak) of this reviewer, a lapsed Protestant Ontarian. Yet from its very first page the reader is acutely conscious of entering a strange, unruly, and disquieting world.

The book begins with the arrival of Julien, a Quebecois, in Paris just after the Second World War, and it is immediately clear that his voyage is one of flight as much as discovery. No sooner is he settled in his hotel room than he is visited by the spirit (though in a robustly physical form) of his dead mother Pauline, who reminds him that he is "forbidden any pleasure, any joy, outside the strict enclosure of his childhood." Next morning he awakens to see a body (a suicide, perhaps?) being dragged from the Seine just below his window, a sight that, oddly, seems to reinvigorate him. Though Julien dutifully makes the touristic rounds, he finds Paris essentially inaccessible until, at a concert in a church, he encounters a mysteriously compelling woman who bears a kind of symbolic equivalence to his lost -- and forbidden -- first love, Lydie.

The book's second part delineates the geographic and psychological boundaries of that "strict enclosure," in a Quebec village in the early 1930s. Though Pauline, whose children "guarantee her a hold over the hostile and elusive earth," inevitably brings to mind the monstrous mother of Hebert's famous story "The Torrent," the futility and abjectness of her tyranny evoke as much pity as revulsion. Then, when Julien is 16, Lydie, "horse thief and the village's

queen of the night" gallops into this Oedipal Eden. In fact, she is a headstrong adolescent from a privileged yet vaguely decadent background, who is boarding with a local farmer until she returns to school in America. She casts a fatal spell over Julien and his sister, while she herself flirts with and finds her own degradation at the hands of a village lout. Lydie, a "poisonous flower," beckons towards sin and death, but also towards escape from the prison of childhood as well as the monotony of provincial life. She incites desire for the pleasures not only of the flesh, but also of the mind: music, art, and poetry (Lydie, as might be expected, prefers les maudits) -- in short, the delights, as well as the dangers, of life in the larger world.

In part three, Julien becomes first the caretaker of his once "huge and sacred" mother, now reduced by age and grief, and then her survivor, sequestered in the womblike "red room" of their apartment in Quebec City. When he sets out for Paris, he is leaving not only this secure confinement, but an entanglement with another woman, the guileless Aline, who gives him the same unconditional -- perhaps stifling'? -- love as did Pauline. In the book's final section, Julien must choose between the elusive, mocking Parisienne (surrogate for the impetuous, quasi-American Lydie) and the life-giving -- albeit banal -- normality offered by the Quebecoise Aline.

Burden of Dreams combines the starkness of a fable with acute, at times ironic, psychological observation, and its cast of archetypes is enlivened by quick strokes of individuality. The book's structure, too, is deceptively simple: in present tense throughout and organized in brief vignettes, it evokes both the immediacy of dreams and the disorder of memory, without obstructing the inexorable progress of the narrative.

Sheila Fischman's fairly literal translation maintains a not-quite-idiomatic formality, but the tone and sensibility of' Hebert's fiction seem to me so essentially francophone that it must resist colloquial English. And if a passage such as "that which was sacred and lay at the heart of her beauty" (from the context, Lydie's virginity, or innocence, or perhaps a sacred spark within her) seems blandly impenetrable, it is (at least to me) equally so in the original version: "ce qui etait sacre a l'interieur meme de cette beaute." Like all Anne Hebert's work, Burden of Dreams is very rich in symbol and allusion, but it is never utterly transparent.


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