GRADUALLY, the fiction and poetry of Quebec are becoming available to the unilingual English reader, even if frequently somewhat scrappily and not in sequence. Though piecemeal and delayed translation is better than no translation at all, the reviewer must often comment upon books that foreshadow a writer's later, more characteristic work or even try to suggest developments that have already come to pass. Louise Maheux-Forcier, a strongly feminist writer of great force and individuality, has been publishing for more than 20 years. Amadou and Isle of Joy (L'Ile joyeuse) were her first novels, published in 1963 and 1965. They form two panels of a triptych, the third of which, Un Foret pour Zoe, has appeared in English as A Forest for Zoe; all three were translated by David Lobdell. Of her later, more mature fiction and her work for stage and television, only En toutes lettres, a collection of short stories, has, to my knowledge, appeared in English (Letter by Letter, 1983).
Amadou and Isle of Joy are both stories of paradise lost, and both deal with complex and destructive love affairs. For the firstperson narrator of Amadou, the never-to-be-recaptured paradise was human, a girl with whom she fell in love in her teens. Her parents separate her from her beloved. Later, after her parents have died, leaving her with a great deal of money, she drifts from one tawdry and demeaning love affair to another. Finally, in Paris, she is "rescued" by a young painter, and with him becomes half of a menage a quatre in an abandoned church in rural France. They marry eventually, and the book ends with the murder of the husband, the only means the young woman has found to escape an entrapment in which she must play the part of perpetual victim to be "rescued" again and again. The book has many of the marks of a first novel; too much is told to us, too little allowed to simply appear, and the picture of "bohemian" fife is somewhat crudely drawn. But it also possesses something entirely Maheux-Forcier's own, a firm and musical sense of structure -- she herself studied music in her youth -- though at times characterization and event are too plainly forced to serve this structure.
The lost paradise to which the mind of the young heroine of Isle of Joy returns again and again is not human but physical, a magical island she glimpsed in childhood. She too becomes locked into a damaging and obsessive attachment from which she feels powerless to escape. The young man, a fellow music student, has a romantic though somewhat ambiguous European past; only later does she realize how brutally selfish he is. This relationship is much more explicitly and dramatically presented: efforts to escape that are immediately contradicted; the girl's growing awareness that she is herself the real enemy, having allowed herself to be taken over by emotions she both welcomes and dreads. When the wife whose existence the young man hasn't troubled to mention returns, this woman becomes not a rival or an enemy but, in a terrible way, part of the attachment. Though this passion is quite as destructive as that described in Amadou, this young woman is permitted to go further, to wear the emotion out and to escape, not into murder but physically, to the beloved island of her childhood. As I said, these novels form two panels of a triptych; each can be read on its own, but without the third section, Maheux-Forcier's final intention, a more total and joyous I I escape" for Zoe, remains unclear.
Like Amadou, Jacques Brault's Agonie (Death-Watch in David Lobdell's English translation) is a first novel, but a first novel of recent date (1984), and the work of a mature writer already wellknown as an essayist, critic and, above all, poet. Baldly told, the events of the novel, which won a Governor General's Award, are simple. For some reason inexplicable to himself, a young man feels suddenly drawn to one of his university teachers, a clumsy nonentity whom he and all his fellow students have hitherto despised and laughed at. "That little, grey man came scurrying into a comer of my fife," as he puts it. As the years pass, this fascination, and the need to know more about the object of the fascination, grow more insistent, the failures and insufficiencies of the teacher, now deprived of his job, becoming at last those of the young man himself as all his bright hopes fade. The book ends with the ex-teacher dead on a park bench, having by accident or design bequeathed to the young man the notebook in which he has set down the details of his not very dramatic failures; the identification, the absorption of one fife by the other, is now complete. The tone of the novel is low-key and the sense of quiet menace -- emotion coming often between rather than through the words -- is reminiscent of much of Brault's poetry. Lobdell's touch as translator, which seemed to me sure and unobtrusive in the two Maheux-Forcier novels, is perhaps a little less certain with the Brault. The instances when I could hear the French behind the English -- for example raucous (presumably for rauque) when hoarse would be so much better for a voice that is also said to speak "melodically" -- make me wonder, and wonder is all I can do, not having the French at hand, whether the English of Death- Watch has at all times the sublety that the elliptical nature of so much of the material would seem to call for. Still, this is an unusual book and deserves the attention of anyone interested in the thoughts and expression of our fellows beyond the fence of language.