Lise Bissonnette, the publisher of Montreal's Le Devoir, seemed somewhat bemused by the surprise that greeted the arrival of her first novel, Marie suivant l'été (1993), in English, Following the Summer. "In Europe," she was quoted as saying, "it is nothing for a journalist to write a novel." Maybe so. But here in North America we are accustomed to our outspoken media commentators producing weighty political analyses or personal memoirs, and perhaps, occasionally, foraying into genre fiction. By that standard, Following The Summer, noted for its taut prose and subtle personification of rural Quebec's scarred mineral landscape, exceeded critics' expectations.
Bissonnette's second novel promises to secure her a place among Canada's foremost authors. Affairs of Art is modernist in its preoccupation with nihilism; modernist, too, in its depiction of a psychologically alienated protagonist engaged in debilitating metaphysical speculation. Yet François Dubeau, Bissonnette's central character, does not entirely fit the mould, for he exercises greater influence over his fortunes than the anti-heroes in Kafka or Camus, for example.
Born to a young, single woman in the plebeian environs of east end Montreal, François managed to pass beyond these origins. He attended university, in time establishing himself as a professor and eventually transforming himself into an art critic of tremendous stature. His success has freed him from the intellectual's paramount fear: an existence of terrible banality.
The book opens with François alone in Mexico, dying of AIDS. Most of this slim volume takes the form of a letter-a final testament of sorts-to his lover, in which he reflects upon art, faith, sex, and love, the forces that have shaped his life.
François' ascent into the upper echelons of Quebec's cultural society began when he attacked the meaninglessness of a particular artist's work in a scathing critique. Instead of feeling insulted, the artist publicly thanked him for perceiving his deepest motivations. This comic bit of irony launched François' career.
The bulk of his oeuvre supports his thesis that "inspiration is dead," an echo of Nietzsche's saying, "God is dead." He also borrows from the thought of T. S. Eliot and I. A. Richards, two New Critics who, in the early decades of this century, considered the elevation of art to be a necessary consequence of the decline of religion.
If art replaces religion, then it follows that the artist replaces God. But as the novel makes clear, his moral and physical corruptibility makes a mockery of the quest for divinity. The artist, being human, must inevitably fall.
François' fall occurs in Paris in the early years, when he has just started writing. While attending a symposium on the New Criticism, he engages in an affair with the "great Italian critic" Bruno Farinacci-Lepore. His first homosexual encounter results in a loss of innocence. Afterward he thinks,
"I'd got over everything. Matisse had been merely a painter of balconies, like the thousands of those that looked down on and concealed a coastline reeking of automobiles, his colours came from the market, and his odalisques were trashy and cheap."
Bruno's attention rapidly inflates François' reputation. In effect, he sleeps his way to the top.
Throughout the novel, favours and bribes, sexual and otherwise, fuel the success of a great many artists and critics. François comes to manipulate his powers as freely as his peers. His cynicism is a symptom of the sense of imposture that, in secret, sullies his professional activities, and that stems, in part, from his early realization that the students "who would arrive at the essentials wouldn't need [his] file cards to guide them. As for the others [he] just had to amuse them. To add colour.."
Bruno represents the art world's potential for meaninglessness. "Genuine critics do not like art, individual works of art even less, and artists, rarely," he tells François. "They study, classify, define, mediate. Entomologists do not live with ants." François' response, that "he is not ready for such renunciation," suggests the modernist's impatience with "the disclosures of genius". Truth and knowledge are arbitrary, they believe; only sincere feeling can be trusted.
Significantly, not a single painting hangs on the stark, white walls of Bruno's Italian apartment. In contrast, François suffuses his home with whimsical colour. Among his works are a canvas depicting "a wavy line, emerging, black from a red triangle," "a pink holocaust" signalling "the death of the body of a woman who has grown up without being born," and "a minute sketch by Dallaire, a cat-blue vase under pastel peonies on both a Niçois sea and a grandmother's shawl." Even his nearly Persian cat appears "dusk blue".
For François, life can only mimic the passion and intensity of art. He views his surroundings through a motley palette; everything translates into the painter's tableaux. His first love is "as round as `Susannah at Her Bath'," Bruno's white-tiled bath is "a Raynaud".
Bissonnette's sensual dollops of colour intermittently break the spell of her fluid, pensive prose. For the most part, though, François' exquisite verisimilitude holds us captive. His richly allusive tale takes us on an age-old journey to find the link between redemption and art.
Donna Nurse is a Toronto writer.