IT'S HARD to believe that at this frenetic stage of 20th-century life there's still a readership for tong, leisurely novels. Borges seems so right when he says:
The composition of vast books is a laborious and impoverishing extravagance....A better course of procedure is to pretend that these
books already exist, and then to offer a resume, a commentary.
Readers like myself, getting long in the tooth, have enough on their hands trying to keep up with regular-sized books.
Yves Beauchemin clearly neither shares Borges's view, nor writes for those who are reluctant to read anything above 300 pages. Like Alley Cat, his international hit (one million copies sold!), Juliette is massive -728 pages. And like its predecessor, it's a very traditional kind of novel - along the lines of those 19th-century novels
Beauchemin so much admires.
Reading it is the equivalent of watching a full season of, say, "Coronation Street." We meet a host of characters, some memorable (such as the eponymous heroine, Juliette Pomerleau), some not; we come into contact with the innumerable mundane details of their everyday lives in and around Montreal (who's wearing what, and when; what kinds of breakfast cereal they eat; what models of car they drive; which gears they happen to shift into at given moments). In short, the novel painstakingly supplies all those "demented particulars" (Samuel Beckett's phrase) authors are expected to put into novels written in the illusionist mode.
The plot, though not always unpredictable, is appropriately labyrinthine. At the start, Juliette, dying of some awful affliction, is miraculously cured by listening to music (an oddly Latin American touch in a novel that is in no other way magic realism). As soon as she's on her feet again, she sets out to find her prodigal niece, Adele - and that becomes the main element of the plot. Juliette also attempts to buy her childhood home, built in Montreal in 1887 (the novel passes along a lot of information on the conservation of old buildings - a passion of Beauchemin's) - with complicating shenanigans. And behind the main plot and its various subplots, surfacing
from time to time like background music, is the story of the obscure composer Bohuslav Martinek, one of Juliette's tenants. Martinek is deservedly brought into the light by none other than Charles Dutoit, the real-life conductor of the Montreal symphony.
But one of the dismaying aspects of a novel with such opulence of character and situation is this: the truly ingenious parts (Juliette's miracle cure, for example) tend to be engulfed by the more trivial profusion. Even an area so potentially gripping as the search for Adele becomes tedious rather than suspenseful when so many false trails are followed to their inconsequential ends. Related to this is the curious fact that in a book with so much "show," there are also so many large gobbets of "tell." A typical instance is this rumination of Roger Simoneau, a trucker who becomes quite important as the novel develops:
Fifteen years on the road ... sold my parents' house for fuck-all ... I'm losing my hair ... a pile of women I only wanted to screw, who'd have sold me out for two bucks ... nothing ahead of me, nothing behind me ... everybody dumps on me and I dump back ... What a pitiful son of a bitch ... and I drank all of my goddam rum and the fucking bar's shut!
Oh well, perhaps Beauchemin resorted to this kind of thing in the interests of saving space.
But when all is said and done, so much of one's response to Juliette is a matter of taste - or, more bluntly, of snobbery. For better or worse, this is the kind of novel many of us have been so educated away from in EngLit courses; it's almost impossible for us to read them with the innocence we must surely once have had. Yet this much is clear: Beauchemin is a smart writer who knows what his audience wants and how to give it to them. Writers with more arty aspirations can only be grateful for such authors and such books - it's their incredible sales that keep publishers of other kinds of fiction afloat. Finally, if Juliette is a huge success, as it probably will be, it will be in no small way owing to Sheila Fischman's fluent translation.